Illinois Churches Lose Bid to Hold Large Religious Services (1)

June 16, 2020, 9:59 PM; Updated: June 18, 2020, 6:19 PM

A group of Illinois churches couldn’t convince the Seventh Circuit on Tuesday to block enforcement of an Illinois coronavirus order that caps religious services at ten individuals.

An executive order from Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) allows individuals to leave their homes to exercise their religious faith, but a previous executive order implementing a ten-person cap on in-person religious services would still apply if reimposed, Judge Frank H. Easterbrook said for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

Pritzker lifted the cap on large religious services ahead of ahead of oral argument, but the Seventh Circuit treated the dispute as if it were still live, rather than moot.

Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church and Logos Baptist Ministries argued to the Seventh Circuit that religious services should be treated like grocery stores and soup kitchens, which are allowed to continue operating with more than ten people present.

But in-person religious services are more like concerts and lectures, which the executive order also limits to gatherings of ten people or fewer, the court said. It affirmed the lower court’s decision to not issue a preliminary injunction in the churches’ favor.

Speaking and singing by congregants increases the chance that the virus may spread through the aerosolized saliva droplets those actions produce, the court said.

Pritzker has encouraged churches to hold remote services, and churches are allowed to host a succession of small in-person services, according to the court’s opinion.

Feeding the hungry and housing the homeless “requires teams of people to work together in physical spaces, but churches can feed the spirit in other ways,” the court said.

The First Amendment protects the free exercise of religion, but the amendment doesn’t require states to accommodate all religious functions or exempt them from generally applicable laws like the executive order at issue here, the court said.

Judges Michael S. Kanne and David F. Hamilton joined the opinion.

The Illinois Attorney General represented Pritzker. The churches were represented by Liberty Counsel Inc. and Mauck & Baker LLC.

The case is Elim Romanian Pentecostal Chur. v. Pritzker, 7th Cir., No. 20-01811, 6/16/20.

(Updates June 16 story to clarify that Pritzer relieved restrictions on church services ahead of oral argument.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Porter Wells in Washington at pwells@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com

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