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Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Court Denies Emergency Relief to Churches Challenging Governor's Stay at Home Order

We reported previously on a lawsuit filed by Beloved Church in Lena, Illinois against Illinois Governor Pritzker challenging his stay at home order. In that case, an Illinois District Court Judge denied the church's request for a temporary restraining order against enforcement of the order against the church. Since that ruling, lawsuits have been filed by two other churches, with similar results.

On May 13, 2020, U.S. District Judge Gettleman denied a restraining order sought by two area churches against the enforcement of Governor Pritzker’s order, which banned gatherings of more than 10 people. The churches sued the Governor claiming that the Stay at Home Order’s limit on the size of religious gatherings to ten people violates the establishment clause and infringes on the right to free exercise of religion.

Citing several cases involving state authority during public health crises, Judge Gettleman ruled that “the right to practice religion freely does not include the liberty to expose the community ... to communicable disease.” Under emergency circumstances, such as when faced with a society-threatening epidemic, “a state may implement emergency measures that curtail constitutional rights so long as the measures have at least some ‘real or substantial relation’ to the public health crisis and are not ‘beyond all question, a plain, palpable violation of rights secured by the fundamental law.” Judge Gettleman added that "the harm to plaintiffs if the Order is enforced pales in comparison to the dangers to society if it is not." Specifically, “an injunction 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. Their interest in communal services cannot and does not outweigh the health and safety of the public.” Judge Gettleman concluded that the Order does not violate freedoms of speech, religion or assembly under the First Amendment, nor does it violate the establishment clause.

The churches appealed, and on May 16, 2020, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued an order denying the churches’ request for an emergency injunction to block enforcement of Governor Pritzker’s Order. The Court ruled that the Order’s limit on gatherings to 10 people or fewer amid “an extraordinary public health emergency” does not appear to discriminate against religious activities or show hostility toward religion since it also applies to secular gatherings such as concerts, lectures, theatrical performances, or choir practices. The Court rejected the churches' argument that worship services were comparable to shopping or other essential services where people do not congregate or remain for extended periods. Although the Court denied emergency relief to the churches, the case will continue on the churches' other arguments.

Post Authored by Eugene Bolotnikov and Julie Tappendorf, Ancel Glink


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