Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker Lifts Church Restrictions in Response to SCOTUS

In this March 19, 2020 photo, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker listens to a question during a news conference in Chicago. Amid an unprecedented public health crisis, the nation’s governors are trying to get what they need from the federal government – and fast. But often that means navigating the disorienting …
AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) lifted the restrictions he placed on houses of worship in his state Thursday after two churches filed an emergency injunction pending appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Within hours after two Romanian churches, represented by Liberty Counsel, filed the emergency injunction, Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh ordered Pritzker to respond by 8:00 p.m. Thursday.

With less than four hours before the deadline, the governor released “guidelines,” rather than mandates, for houses of worship that wish to resume church services following the coronavirus lockdowns. None of the suggestions are legally enforceable, explains Liberty Counsel.

The guidelines state that the governor’s administration recognizes worship is central to the lives of many people as is “the spiritual and emotional value of prayer, community, and faith.”

Pritzker’s guidelines still “strongly recommend” the continuation of “remote services, particularly for those who are vulnerable to COVID-19, including older adults and those with co-morbidities.”

For those churches that wish to resume in-person worship, the guidelines suggest gathering outdoors in small groups, with less than ten people as the ideal choice.

“Congregants who are living together sit together, at least six feet apart” from others,” the guidelines continue, adding the recommendations of face coverings and the avoidance of singing and “group recitation” of prayers.

“Restrooms should be regularly sanitized and have sufficient soap and hand sanitizer,” state the guidelines.

The governor’s office says high-risk behaviors to be avoided are those that involve person-to-person contact, such as greetings, hugs, handshakes, use of a common communion cup, and offering communion on the tongue.

Liberty Counsel said it filed the emergency request to the Supreme Court due to a letter sent to churches on Saturday by the Chicago Department of Public Health:

The city is threatening closure and “summary abatement.” In the threatening letter, Commissioner Allison Arwady, who declared the churches a “public nuisance” for holding services with more than 10 people, wrote: “I am authorized to seek to enjoin such nuisance or to cause the same to be summarily abated in such manner as I may direct….” The letter ended by stating that “the City will take steps necessary to abate, including Summary Abatement.”

According to Pritzker’s “Illinois Restored” plan, it was not until Phase 5 of the plan, when “testing, tracing and treatment are widely available throughout the state,” and “either a vaccine is developed to prevent additional spread of COVID-19, a treatment option is readily available that ensures health care capacity is no longer a concern, or there are no new cases over a sustained period,” that gatherings, including religious services, of more than 50 people, would have been permitted.

“The unilateral actions of Gov. J.B. Pritzker is the classic example of tyranny,” said Liberty Counsel Chairman Mat Staver in a statement. “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.”

Staver added that his organization wants “to make sure this tyranny and abuse never happens again.”

Warning that Pritzker could easily reinstate his mandates, Liberty Counsel plans to file a reply to the Supreme Court, arguing that Pritzker’s “unconstitutional orders are capable of repetition yet evading review.”

In a statement about the newly released guidelines for worship in Illinois, Kelly Shackelford, president and chief counsel at First Liberty Institute, said, “The massive religious discrimination and criminal threats against churches is over in Illinois.”

“This was a disgraceful part of our history during the pandemic,” he continued. “We are grateful to President Trump for his leadership in urging Governors across America to restore religious liberty and allow Americans to return to their places of worship.”

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