Federal Court Says Gov. Pritzker Can Limit Church Attendance To 10 People

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker smiles as he explains legislation he's backing to make it easier for taxpayers to locate information about lobbyists, their clients, and campaign contributions, in his Statehouse office, Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019. The bill will also create an ethics commission to recommend other ethics measures after a federal bribery complaint against former Rep. Luis Arroyo, D-Chicago. (AP Photo/John O'Connor)

Although Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker rolled back his May guidelines calling for a 10-person limit for in-person church services, his prerogative to do so was upheld in a recent decision by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

As we reported late last month, The Thomas Moore Society deemed Pritzker’s announcement a major victory after the Democrat governor lifted his restrictive limits on church services. Instead, the language in Pritzker’s new orders changed the attendance limit from a mandate to a guideline.

Though Pritzker backed down, religious liberty legal aid organization Liberty Counsel (LC) continued its lawsuit on behalf of Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church and Logos Baptist Ministries, noting that Pritzker could still re-impose the limit in the future.

“Unless and until there is a judicial declaration that Governor Pritzker has acted unconstitutionally thus far, there is nothing keeping him from changing his mind again, whether in this crisis or any future crisis,” LC declared at the time.

Thanks to the ruling by the Seventh Circuit Court, however, Pritzker may yet choose to reinstate his mandates for churches at any time.

According to LifeSite, the three-judge panel rejected Pritzker’s request to dismiss the case out of hand but nonetheless ruled that the 10-person limit was constitutional:

It rejected the comparison of churches to grocery stores, which can allow an unlimited number of people inside, on the grounds that speaking and singing can spread COVID-19 through aerosolized saliva droplets, as with lectures or concerts.

Caring for the hungry or homeless “requires teams of people to work together in physical spaces, but churches can feed the spirit in other ways” such as live-streaming sermons, the court ruled.

“How can the state divide between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ activity in the same church building?” LC’s Mat Staver said of the ruling. “This is clearly not the role of the government. So, while churches can feed, shelter overnight, and provide ‘necessities of life’ to an unlimited number of people, the crowd must be reduced to 10 people or less when the pastor leads a worship service or prayer. The court brushed off this obvious discrimination.”

Staver vowed that, if necessary, Liberty Counsel will take the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Our next step will be to ask the full panel of judges at the 7th Circuit to review the case,” the LC chairman wrote. “This case and the conflicts now among the courts of appeal provide an opportunity to ask the Supreme Court to review the matter at the appropriate time.”

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