Chicago officials are threatening to close or even bulldoze a church that has continued meeting in defiance of a state order, saying the governor’s action has the “force of law.”
The state of Illinois has banned in-person church services larger than 10 people amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Allison Arwady, the commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, sent a letter Friday to Chicago’s Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church, saying she has the power to stop the congregation from meeting by “whatever means are necessary.”
“If you continue to operate in defiance of the Executive Order, the City will pursue all available legal remedies,” she wrote in her letter. “... Any future gatherings conducted contrary to the Order will be considered a failure to abate and the City will take steps necessary to abate, including Summary Abatement.”
“Summary abatement,” as defined by the Illinois Supreme Court, means “to put down or destroy without process.”
“This means the inspector can, upon his own judgment, cause the alleged nuisance to stop on his own authority and effect a destruction of property at his discretion,” the Illinois’ Supreme Court’s opinion in City of Kankakee v. New York Cent. R. Co. read.
Arwady wrote, “if you continue to host gatherings in violation of the Executive Order, the City of Chicago will take all necessary measures to abate the nuisance to ensure the safety of the City’s residents.”
Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church met again Sunday and employed a series of health restrictions, including the requirement that attendees sit at least six feet apart. Temperatures were checked at the door, and the congregation operated at 15 percent seating capacity.
“Our guidelines for the surfaces in this church are stricter than the CDC’s,” Cristian Ionescu, the church’s pastor, said at a press conference after Sunday’s worship service.
The U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, the pastor said, is the “law of the land.”
“I resent the fact they say they care more about our people than ourselves,” Ionescu said of city officials. “We shut down the doors of this church before the governor issued his stay-at-home order [in March].”
Arwady, in her letter, mentioned an Arkansas church case from early March in which three people died and 38 percent of attendees contracted the virus. Significantly, though, the case took place prior to the CDC’s issuance of social distancing guidelines and mask guidance. The case involved events from March 6–8 and March 11; the coronavirus outbreak wasn’t declared a national health emergency until March 13.
Ionescu rejected Arwady’s argument, noting that people in every part of society – including in the Illinois governor’s office and in the White House – have contracted the coronavirus.
“My question is: why [is] nobody counting people infected at Walmart, people infected in Lowe's, people infected in Target, people infected in supermarkets, in hardware stores?” Ionescu asked. “Why [is] nobody [counting] people infected in Planned Parenthood clinics? They are they only looking for ... cases in churches.
“We assume risks, even when there's no pandemic, just by going out of our houses,” he said.
Ionescu said the church will continue meeting.
“Per the words they used in that letter, the maximum that they can escalate to is demolishing the church – without court order, without due process,” he said. “... So, I consider that an extreme threat. I'm not afraid of it. We're gonna be peaceful. But we won’t stand down one bit.”
Photo courtesy: ©Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church Chicago Facebook
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.