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Church sues Illinois Gov over extended shutdown despite ‘flattening the curve’

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An Illinois church is suing Democrat Governor J.B. Pritzker for his “hostility” towards religious faith and for violating the constitutional rights of churchgoers.

The governor’s intention to extend through May the existing ban he issued on religious gatherings is being described as a violation of the First Amendment and the Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and The Beloved Church in Lena, Illinois is calling Pritzker to account.

(Image: Fox 2 screenshot)

The lawsuit, filed Thursday by the Thomas More Society on behalf of the church, claims that Pritzker’s goal of “flattening the curve” in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic has been achieved but the lawmaker has extended the ban on what is considered non-essential activities.

“‘Flattening the curve’ to preserve hospital capacity was the principal reason for Pritzker’s orders: that aim has now been achieved,” the lawsuit said. “Yet Pritzker’s orders as to churches and religious activities have not changed one iota from the early days of the coronavirus epidemic — when COVID-19 cases were growing exponentially, and policymakers feared millions would die — to today — when the level of coronavirus infections is stable.”

While golfing, dog grooming and fishing have been categorized as “essential” activities and allowed under Pritzker’s extended orders, all religious services continue to be prohibited. This, the lawsuit states, is a violation of Illinois’s RFRA which mandates that government restrictions on churches have to be “narrowly tailored” as a “compelling interest” of the government.

Shutdowns like that being ordered by the governor are were likened to a sentence of  “house arrest” the lawsuit argued.

“This has now gone on for almost a month and a half, with another month to come, and with no end in sight,” the filing said. “No thought has been given to regional differences in these orders. No consideration has been made for church size. No allowance has been made in relation to particular individuals’ risk factors for coronavirus. No explanation has been offered to tie any spread of the coronavirus to a particular community. These orders cannot meet strict scrutiny.”

Illinois is one of ten states in the country which banned all religious services amid the pandemic, sparking multiple lawsuits brought by churches against state and local governments.

“The spiritual well-being of the people of Illinois is just as important as their temporal well-being during these dark times,” Thomas More Society senior counsel Peter Breen said. “Keeping liquor stores open but indefinitely shutting down churches and religious ministries violates our Constitution and our most basic liberties. If liquor stores are ‘essential,’ so are churches.”

Republican state Rep. Darren Bailey sued Pritzker last week over his authority to issue his original shutdown order. Clay County Circuit Court Judge Michael McHaney granted a temporary restraining order after Bailey filed a motion to prevent the governor “from taking any action … which orders Darren Bailey to stay at home, or at his place of residence, as well as limiting his ability to travel within the state.”

The judge ruled that the 30-day extension of  Pritzker’s statewide stay-at-home order “shredded the Constitution” while the governor claimed his orders are “a lawful exercise of his constitutional authority to protect the public health,” and he plans to appeal the ruling.

“What’s going on is actually that our governor, J.B. Pritzker, is threatening the very constitutionality of the land that we live in by taking actions on himself,” Bailey said, according to the Washington Examiner. “The legislators, the House and Senate, have also been asleep during this whole time in just allowing, I don’t know, fear, panic — allowing this governor to do as he wishes.”

In the filing on Thursday, the pastor of the Beloved Church, Steve Cassell is asking for a temporary restraining order so that he can hold an in-person church service during the first week of May.

US Attorney General William Barr advised federal prosecutors across the nation this week to be on the “lookout” for state and local coronavirus directives that go too far.

“As the Department of Justice explained recently in guidance to states and localities taking steps to battle the pandemic, even in times of emergency, when reasonable and temporary restrictions are placed on rights, the First Amendment and federal statutory law prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers,” Barr wrote in a memo just weeks after many state and local officials threatened churches over Easter observances.

Frieda Powers

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