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Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Governor’s Executive Order Upheld in Religious Assembly Appeal

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled on a case concerning religious gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic, finding that Governor Pritzker’s Executive Order 2020-32 did not discriminate against two churches’ First Amendment right to religious assembly.

Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church and Logos Baptist Ministries sued Governor Pritzker claiming EO 2020-32 violated their First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion by limiting the size of religious gatherings to ten people. The churches argued that the Governor’s proposed alternatives – drive through church services and services over the internet – were inadequate for their congregations.

While the case was pending, Governor Pritzker replaced EO 2020-32 with EO 2020-38, permitting all religious services and classifying the 10 person cap as a recommendation with no legal consequences. In defending the churches' challenge, the State argued that EO 2020-38 resolved the lawsuit since the churches received the relief they requested from the courts. However, because of the fluid nature of the Restore Illinois plan, and the possibility that the Governor could restore the original EO 2020-32 if statewide conditions deteriorate and COVID-19 levels increase, the Seventh Circuit ruled on the lawsuit even though EO 2020-32 is not currently applicable.

The churches’ claims required the Court to decide whether religious services better resemble essential gatherings like grocery stores and laundromats, or non-essential gatherings like concerts and lectures. Ultimately, the Court held that church services involve large groups of people who gather in close proximity for extended periods of time which differ from grocery stores and laundromats where people do not congregate in large groups in close proximity for extended periods. The Court left the door open for Illinois to use data collection and contact tracing to determine just how dangerous religious services are compared to grocery stores and similar activities, but ultimately held that EO 2020-32 did not violate the churches’ First Amendment rights of religious assembly.

Read the 7th Circuit’s full opinion here.

Post authored by Catherine Coghlan and Daniel J. Bolin


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