Northwestern Illinois church sues Pritzker in federal court over his stay-at-home order

The Beloved Church in Stephenson County says it plans to reopen and hold a public worship service Sunday.

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Gov. J.B. Pritzker, along with elected and health officials, is shown in March during a daily update on the coronavirus situation in Illinois.

Governor J.B. Pritzker, along with elected and health officials give their daily update on the coronavirus situation in Illinois, Monday, March 23, 2020. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

A church in northwestern Illinois added to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s legal woes Thursday, filing a federal lawsuit seeking an immediate injunction that would allow it to conduct worship services.

The church plans to hold such a service Sunday, it says.

The lawsuit was filed by the Thomas More Society on behalf of The Beloved Church of Lena and its pastor, Stephen Cassell. It alleges that the Stephenson County health department delivered a cease-and-desist notice to Cassell on March 31.

Lena is about 50 miles west of Rockford.

The complaint says the church intends to “reopen and hold public worship services this Sunday.” It goes on to say church leaders “fear arrest and prosecution if they do so, without immediate relief from this court.” Because about 80 people attend Sunday services at the church, according to the lawsuit, the service could be held in violation of Pritzker’s stay-at-home order.

“Plaintiffs believe that, in these dark times, Illinoisans need the Spirit of Almighty God, but Pritzker’s orders have left them to settle for the lesser spirits dispensed out of the state’s liquor stores,” the complaint states.

By the time the new executive order was filed by Pritzker on Thursday evening, there was new language about “the free exercise of religion” under essential services that are “permitted,” but it was unclear what affect it would have on the Lena church’s services.

“To engage in the free exercise of religion, provided that such exercise must comply with Social Distancing Requirements and the limit on gatherings of more than 10 people in keeping with CDC guidelines for the protection of public health,” the extended order says. “Religious organizations and houses of worship are encouraged to use online or drive-in services to protect the health and safety of their congregants.”

Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said the language was included to “clarify” that places of worship can meet if they follow social distancing guidelines.

Earlier on Thursday, Pritzker responded to the suit by asking faith leaders to “put the health and safety of their congregants first.” He added, “Everybody has the right to sue.”

U.S. District Judge John Lee asked both sides to discuss a “standstill agreement” in the case Thursday. He also asked for a memo by Friday afternoon that would explain what “enforcement actions” police in Stephenson County would take if the church’s planned service goes forward. He criticized the church for waiting a week after Pritzker announced an extension of his stay-at-home order to file the lawsuit.

“Plaintiffs should not expect the court to rule on the motion prior to this Sunday,” Lee wrote.

Among the lawyers in the case is Peter Breen, vice president and senior counsel for the Thomas More Society. He is a former state representative who led a previous abortion lawsuit against the state.

The lawsuit filed Thursday is the first to seriously challenge Pritzker’s stay-at-home order in federal court. It alleges violations of the First and Fourteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution, as well as violations of Illinois’ law and constitution. It alleges that “prominent government officials have violated Pritzker’s orders” — citing Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s haircut — and it accuses Pritzker of “hostility to religious exercise.”

The church also alleges that the cease-and-desist notice given to Cassell threatened civil and criminal penalties.

This new legal challenges follows lawsuits in state court by state Reps. Darren Bailey and John Cabello. It cites both of the previous lawsuits and borrows from their legal arguments. Bailey secured a temporary restraining order from a Clay County judge earlier this week that freed Bailey — and only Bailey — from Pritzker’s stay-at-home order.

Pritzker has decried the lawsuits as irresponsible grandstanding by the two lawmakers, both Republicans who support President Donald Trump. State lawyers are appealing the order issued in Bailey’s case, complaining in part it has led to additional lawsuits. The state aims to take the appeal in Bailey’s case directly to the Illinois Supreme Court.

Contributing: Tina Sfondeles

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