Northwest Illinois church appeals ruling upholding stay-at-home order
A car parked outside Beloved Church in Lena on Sunday morning displays a homemade sign indicating "only God is greater than any virus." Parishioners at the church attended a service there Sunday in defiance of the governor's stay-at-home order that limits gatherings to fewer than 10 people. (Credit: WREX TV of Rockford)
Judge said public health outweighs right to gather in public
By PETER HANCOCK
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD – Attorneys for a northwest Illinois church said Monday that they have appealed a federal judge’s ruling that upheld Gov. JB Pritzker’s stay-at-home order as it applies to worship services.
The announcement came one day after U.S. District Judge John Z. Lee ruled against a petition by Beloved Church in Lena and its pastor, Stephen Cassell, to block the order, saying the public interest in preventing the spread of COVID-19 outweighed their First Amendment right to hold a public service with large numbers of people.
“Governor Pritzker’s arbitrary 10-person limit applies only to churches but not to the many other businesses open in Illinois today, from liquor stores to lawyers to pet groomers,” Peter Breen, vice president and senior counsel for the Thomas More Society, which represents the church, said in a statement late Monday. “Our Constitution requires that churches receive at least equal treatment as any secular enterprise. Pritzker’s latest threat of jail for people of faith is outrageous, and we will seek immediate relief from the court of appeals to defend our clients.”
In his ruling Sunday, Lee acknowledged that freedom of religion is a fundamental right, “[b]ut even the foundational rights secured by the First Amendment are not without limits; they are subject to restriction if necessary to further compelling government interests — and, certainly, the prevention of mass infections and deaths qualifies,” Lee wrote. “After all, without life, there can be no liberty or pursuit of happiness.”
The judge noted that more than 60,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, “more than the number of people who perished during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Pearl Harbor, and the Battle of Gettysburg combined.”
The suit was filed on Thursday, April 30, against Pritzker, Stephenson County Sheriff David Snyders, Lena Police Chief Steve Schaible and Craig Beintema, administrator of the Stephenson County Department of Public Health. It sought to permanently block enforcement of Pritzker’s latest, revised stay-at-home order, which went into effect May 1 and extends through May 30.
Under that revised order, churches may hold public services in groups of 10 or fewer as long as they follow social distancing requirements. Despite that, the church reportedly held its regular service on Sunday. WREX-TV in Rockford reported that a public relations firm representing the church said churchgoers were provided hand sanitizer and family units were spaced 6 feet apart.
As of Monday, according to the state’s COVID-19 website, there have been 63 cases of the disease in Stephenson County, but so far, no deaths.
The Beloved Church case is just one legal challenge seeking to overturn the stay-at-home order. Republican Reps. Darren Bailey, of Xenia, and John Cabello, of Machesney Park, are both challenging the order in state courts.
A circuit court judge in Clay County last week ruled in favor of Bailey’s complaint that the order violated his civil rights. But while that case was being appealed, Bailey asked that the order be vacated and the case returned to circuit court, where he plans to file an amended complaint.
Cabello’s suit challenges the legality of the order as a whole and is seeking to have it overturned statewide. A hearing in that case is scheduled for May 14 in Winnebago County.