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Friday, January 14, 2022

Court of Appeals Declines to Issue Injunction to Churches Based on 2020 Executive Order

In early 2020, two religious institutions sued the Illinois Governor to challenge one of his Executive Orders that had restricted the number of persons who could attend in-person worship services to 10 people. The federal district court had denied the churches' request for a preliminary injunction to stop the Governor from enforcing the order, and the churches appealed. In June of 2020, the Court of Appeals ruled in the Governor's favor, finding that the challenged restriction did not violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

On remand back to the district court, the churches requested that the court issue a permanent injunction to stop enforcement of the restriction. The churches argued that subsequent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court that came after the Court of Appeals' ruling were favorable to their argument that capacity limits on in-person worship violate constitutional rights. The district court denied the request, finding that the churches' challenge was "moot" because the Governor's EO had been subsequently amended to remove the capacity limits for places of worship. The churches appealed again to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals arguing that the federal court should rule on the legality of the previous restriction because the Governor might, in the future, impose a similar restriction. The churches asked the federal court to enjoin the Governor from reinstating the sort of capacity limit that was in force in spring of 2020.

In a ruling this week, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the district court that injunctive relief was not appropriate in this instance. The Court of Appeals stated that federal courts should not assume that a state official will refuse to follow U.S. Supreme Court precedent, nor should a federal court grant injunctive relief based on predictions of what the Governor might do in the future. The Court of Appeals stated that if the State imposes an objectionable order in the future, the churches could file suit then, but concluded that "this suit is over." Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church et al., v. Pritzker (7th Cir. January 11, 2022).


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