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Illinois Republican Party sues Pritzker over right for political groups to assemble during pandemic

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court late Monday, claims while religious groups and protesters have been allowed to gather in groups of more than 10, political groups do not share the same freedoms — which are guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

A week after Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker stood alongside protesters to fight police brutality, the Illinois Republican Party along with other state GOP groups have filed a lawsuit in federal court over their constitutional rights to assemble as a political group during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court late Monday, claims while religious groups and protesters have been allowed to gather in groups of more than 10 under Pritzker’s disaster declaration, political groups do not share the same freedoms — which are guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution.

The Democratic governor in late April extended a COVID-19 executive order which allows for religious groups to gather in accordance with safety guidelines. It included freedom of religion as an “essential activity.” But all gatherings over 10 are still not advised. At one point, CDC guidelines to stem the spread of COVID-19 advised against gatherings of more than 10 people.

Pritzker has attended several large events since the police killing of George Floyd and has defended those appearances by saying he was exercising his First Amendment right.

The lawsuit coincides with a national debate over how Republicans should participate in the Republican National Convention, which is still scheduled for August. After criticism from North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper over whether it was still safe to host the convention amid the pandemic, the convention was largely moved to Jacksonville, Florida.

The suit claims “in-person contact is the most persuasive form of communicating ideas” for a political party, with the 2020 election just months away.

“Yet, unlike churches, political parties are barred from gathering in groups greater than 10 under the governor’s executive order. And unlike protesters against police brutality, they have not been given an exemption based on sympathy, recognition, and participation,” the suit says.

The lawsuit claims the ban violates the First and 14th Amendments. The plaintiffs are the Illinois Republican Party, the Will County Republican Central Committee, the Schaumburg Township Republican Organization and the Northwest Side GOP Club.

During a virtual press conference on Tuesday, Illinois Republican Party Co-Chairman Tim Schneider called a virtual meeting of the state party over the weekend “not ideal.”

“Democrats in the state hold almost every lever of power, and the only thing providing a check on their power, the Illinois Republican Party isn’t even allowed to get together to meet or to properly plan and network for an election which is only five months away,” Schneider said. “This is fundamentally wrong, and as this lawsuit contends, a violation of our First Amendment right.”

Schneider called Pritzker’s appearance at recents protests “incandescent hypocrisy on following his own orders.” He said it’s an example of the governor playing by a different set of rules than the rest of Illinois residents.

“Gov. Pritzker is ruling Illinois like an unaccountable king where he only gets to decide which violation of his executive order have his blessing,” Schneider said.

The Illinois GOP Party claims it needs to gather in-person for formal business meetings, such as their annual convention, as well as informal strategy meetings, rallies, bus tours and house parties.

“The party undertakes its gatherings throughout the calendar year, but it has a particular time pressure to undertake these sessions in the next five months leading up to the 2020 general election,” the lawsuit says.

Not being able to meet in person hampers the party’s “effectiveness,” the lawsuit argues.

The lawsuit also argues that religious organizations are exempt from the order. It notes that Pritzker “also has declined to enforce his executive order against protesters assembling in large groups of hundreds or more in response to police brutality.”

The suit claims that by treating the GOP party differently than houses of worship and protesters, the governor is violating the First Amendment and 14th Amendment’s equal-protection clause.

Republicans argue in the lawsuit the governor’s extended disaster declaration has no legal authority past 30 days.

The suit is seeking to enjoin Pritzker from enforcing the order against political parties.

It also seeks attorney fees and additional relief. The plaintiffs are being represented by the Liberty Justice Center.

The Democratic Party of Illinois, in turn, criticized the “large groups of Republicans freely gathering at the Capitol and in downtown Chicago” to protest Pritzker’s reopening plan.

“This lawsuit is a distraction from the real issue — a Republican president who the IL GOP considers the ‘man of our time,’ but has let over a hundred thousand Americans die because of his inaction,” Democratic Party of Illinois Executive Director Mary Morrissey said in a statement. “We support Governor Pritzker and the exemplary leadership he’s shown throughout this public health crisis.”

And Pritzker’s office said the suit is “about scoring political points and criticizing civil rights protests supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.”

“The courts have repeatedly upheld the Governor’s executive orders as based on public health guidance,” Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said. “And as the Republicans who attended protests against the public health guidance are well aware, the State has never prevented people from exercising their First Amendment rights.”

The Illinois Attorney General’s office is representing Pritzker in the suit.