U.S. district judge rules Pritzker’s stay-at-home order constitutional

Judge John Lee of the U.S. District Court denied The Beloved Church of Lena’s motion for a temporary restraining order that would’ve allowed them to host services with 80 people.

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The Beloved Church of Lena, Illinois, saw its lawsuit against Gov. J.B. Pritzker denied Sunday.

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A U.S. district judge issued a ruling Sunday upholding Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order for Illinois as constitutional.

The Beloved Church of Lena, an Evangelical church located about 50 miles west of Rockford, had filed a complaint Thursday seeking a temporary restraining order and injunction in order to resume worship services with its 80 congregants.

The church and its pastor, Stephen Cassell, still held in-person service Sunday without intervention from police, though the temporary restraining order was denied.

“Given the continuing threat posed by COVID-19, the [stay-at-home] Order preserves relatively robust avenues for praise, prayer and fellowship and passes constitutional muster,” Judge John Z. Lee wrote in a 37-page decision.

Lee cited two historical cases — Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905) and Prince v. Massachusetts (1944) — which ruled that “a community has the right to protect itself against an epidemic of disease” and “the right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community...to communicable disease.”

The ruling comes as a major victory for Pritzker and other Illinois officials hoping to continue strict social distancing guidelines during the remainder of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Thursday lawsuit, filed by the Thomas More Society on behalf of The Beloved Church, had been the first significant legal challenge to Illinois’ stay-at-home order in federal court.

The church, which had continued holding services during the pandemic until being given a cease-and-desist order by Stephenson County officials on March 31, had accused Pritzker of “hostility to religious exercise.” It claimed the stay-at-home order violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as several Illinois state laws.

Lee, however, determined the case’s claims to be rendered partially moot by the order revision that went into place Friday, allowing religious gatherings with no more than 10 people to begin taking place.

He still considered the church’s claims in regards to prior damages, though, but ultimately also denied those complaints.

Lee opined that the stay-at-home order does not target religious organizations because churches are more comparable to (similarly closed) schools and movie theaters —in their educational purpose and architectural layout —than grocery stores and manufacturing plants, which the lawsuit had given as examples of secular establishments allowed to remain open.

Although Lee admitted the “broader societal and political debate” about balancing health and economic interests during the pandemic is beyond the court’s scope, he nonetheless declared the stay-at-home order “satisfies minimal constitutional requirements as they pertain to religious organizations.”

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