Illinois churches are claiming victory in a much-watched legal battle after the state on Thursday withdrew all restrictions on houses of worship.
The state issued new guidelines for churches in a nine-page document that recommends – but does not require – that churches “consider limiting attendance to 25% of building capacity or a maximum of 100 attendees, whichever is lower” amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Previously, a state order limited in-person gatherings to 10 persons.
“Recognizing the centrality of worship in many people’s lives and the spiritual and emotional value of prayer, community, and faith, this guidance provides recommendations for places of worship that choose to resume or expand in-person activities, and for those that do not,” the document reads.
The guidelines were issued the same night Pritzker’s administration faced a U.S. Supreme Court deadline to respond to a lawsuit brought by a Chicago church, Elim Romanian Pentecostal, that has continued meeting despite the order. The city of Chicago threatened the congregation with closure.
Liberty Counsel, which represented the congregation in the suit, called the state’s action Thursday a “complete victory in the near term.” Liberty Counsel also represented another church, Logos Baptist Ministries.
“The unilateral actions of Gov. J.B. Pritzker is the classic example of tyranny,” said Liberty Counsel chairman Mat Staver. “He knew he did not have authority to trample on the First Amendment rights of churches and houses of worship, but he did anyway and continued to do so until his case reached the U.S. Supreme Court. ... While we are happy that all churches and houses of worship no longer have any restrictions, we want to make sure this tyranny and abuse never happens again.”
Liberty Counsel, which lost in lower courts and had filed an appeal to the Supreme Court, said it will continue its lawsuit in order to prevent Pritzker from issuing a similar order in the future.
In its brief to the Supreme Court, Liberty Counsel argued that churches should be allowed to open and operate by using the same health guidelines that stores and businesses use. Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church requires attendees to sit at least six feet apart. Temperatures are checked at the door, and the congregation operates at a 15 percent seating capacity.
The brief argues the state’s action violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
Meanwhile, California filed its brief to the U.S. Supreme Court Thursday in a lawsuit filed by a Chula Vista, Calif., congregation. California urged the justices to let it continue restricting churches. The state lets houses of worship meet at a 25 percent capacity.
Photo courtesy: Clay Banks/Unsplash
Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.