Law360 (May 14, 2020, 4:58 PM EDT) -- An Illinois federal judge on Wednesday said two churches can't block Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker's executive order limiting the size of religious gatherings to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, calling their injunction motion and decision to still hold church services "both ill-founded and selfish."
U.S. District Judge Robert W. Gettleman said that the state's restrictions are rationally based on the need to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Illinois, and that there's no evidence Pritzker's order targeted religion.
"The order obviously has a secular purpose to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Its primary effect neither advances nor prohibits religion. It does not favor one religion over another, or religion as such," Judge Gettleman said. "The order has nothing to do with suppressing religion and everything to do with reducing infections and saving lives."
The judge also scolded plaintiff Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church for holding services on Sunday in violation of the order, saying its reply brief included photos of congregants failing to wear face coverings, against U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. The injunction the church seeks for the governor's order "would risk the lives of plaintiffs' congregants, as well as the lives of their family members, friends, co-workers and other members of their communities with whom they come in contact," he said.
"The harm to plaintiffs if the order is enforced pales in comparison to the dangers to society if it is not. The record clearly reveals how virulent and dangerous COVID-19 is, and how many people have died and continue to die from it," Judge Gettleman added. "Their interest in communal services cannot and does not outweigh the health and safety of the public."
Horatio Mihet of Liberty Counsel told Law360 that the churches "strongly disagree" with the court's ruling, saying Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church and Logos Baptist Ministries have already asked for an emergency injunction at the Seventh Circuit.
"The churches — whose members have left everything behind and selflessly fled communist oppression to find freedom for their families in America — take particular offense to the court's unfortunate mischaracterization of their fundamental right to worship as 'selfish,'" Mihet said. "The act of communal worship is a quintessential act of selflessness, and exercising, protecting and vindicating fundamental First Amendment liberties is always in the public interest. The Constitution does not go into exile during a pandemic."
A spokesperson for Pritzker did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Other federal courts have taken a mixed approach to similar lawsuits. Last month, a New Mexico federal judge ruled that an order banning places of worship from holding gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic doesn't violate an Albuquerque church's constitutional rights, but a Kentucky federal judge found a similar ban was unconstitutional.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in late March issued an executive order classifying churches as "essential services" a day after a group of pastors challenged local government orders that prohibited in-person services to the Texas Supreme Court.
And earlier this month, the Trump administration threw its support behind a Virginia church's challenge of Gov. Ralph Northam's executive orders limiting in-person gatherings to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The churches are represented by Daniel Joseph Schmid, Horatio Gabriel Mihet and Roger K. Gannam of Liberty Counsel and Sorin Adrian Leahu of Mauck & Baker LLC.
Pritzker is represented by Christopher Graham Wells, Hal Dworkin, Kelly C. Bauer, R. Douglas Rees, Sarah Jeanne Gallo and Sarah Hughes Newman of the Office of the Illinois Attorney General, Public Interest Division.
The case is Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church et al. v. Pritzker, case number 1:20-cv-02782, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.
--Additional reporting by Michelle Casady, Khorri Atkinson and Kevin Stawicki. Editing by Daniel King.
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