Judge Robert William Gettleman ruled on the lawsuit initiated by the pastors of Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church in Chicago (Pastor Cristian Ionescu) and Logos Baptist Ministries in Niles (Pastor Daniel Chiu), on Wednesday, May 13, 2020.
The plaintiffs sued, saying that by restricting religious gatherings to 10 people or less, Governor J.B. Pritzker violated their federal constitutional rights, including the right to freely exercise their religion, the right to peaceably assemble, and their right to “be free from government hostility and disparate treatment under the Establishment Clause” guaranteed in the First Amendment.
Judge Gettleman denied the churches’ request for a temporary restraining order, noting that they did not show “a greater than negligible chance of success on the merits” of their claims. But in his decision, Judge R. W. Gettleman took particular aim to the public health risks posed by the plaintiffs’ lawsuit.
“Plaintiffs’ request for an injunction, and their blatant refusal to follow the mandates of the Order, are both ill-founded and selfish,” stated in his ruling Judge Gettleman. “An injunction would risk the lives of the plaintiffs’ congregants, as well as the lives of their family members, friends, co-workers and other members of their community with whom they come in contact. Their interest in communal services cannot and does not outweighs the health and safety of the public.”
The two Romanian churches state in the 46-page complaint filed through their attorneys that: “Plaintiffs bring this case to restrain the troubling transgression of their fundamental and cherished liberties wrought by the imposition of Governor Pritzker’s orders surrounding COVID-19,” and that “Plaintiffs seek not to discredit or discard the government’s unquestionable interest in doing that task for which it was instituted — protecting the citizenry. But, as is often true in times of crisis, Plaintiffs respectfully submit that in an effort to uphold his sworn duties Governor Pritzker has stepped over a line the Constitution does not permit.”
The churches also noted in their complaint that many of their members chose to come to the U.S. after fleeing communist oppression in Romania that targeted religious gatherings.
“Some of the pastors and members of Plaintiffs’ churches experienced such persecution personally, and had hoped to never experience it again in the great experiment of American freedom,” the complaint states.
The plaintiffs asked the court to issue a temporary restraining order preventing their pastors and congregants from being subject to criminal sanctions for hosting in-person worship services Sunday, May 10th 2020. Although the court determined it would not issue a restraining order before the weekend’s services, both churches decided to hold a religious service on Sunday anyway — one that more than 120 people attended.
In a court document filed Sunday, Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church’s Senior Pastor Christian Ionescu said the church took health and safety precautions, cordoning off 85% of the auditorium’s 750 seats, hiring cleaners to disinfect the premises Saturday, and taking the temperature of anyone who wanted to attend the service. The pastor said they enforced a six-food “bubble zone” around each attendee and provided hand sanitizer, gloves and masks for anyone who wished to use them.
“We do not seek to make a political statement. We do not seek special treatment, such as to be able to meet for worship free of any precautionary measures. We only seek to be treated equally with other ‘essential’ places, so that — with proper safety precautions and social distancing that meet or exceed what the others are doing — we can corporately and collectively worship God according to our religious mandates and our conscience.” stated Pastor Ionescu.
In his ruling, Judge Gettleman said the plaintiffs did not prove the executive order targets religion even though the order includes exemptions for essential businesses, such as liquor stores and warehouse superstores.
“Gatherings at places of worship pose higher risks of infection than gatherings at Businesses.” “The congregants do not just stop by Elim Church,” stated Judge Gettleman. “They congregate to sing, pray, and worship together. That takes more time than shopping for liquor or groceries. The word ‘congregate,’ from which the term ‘congregation’ derives, means to ‘gather into a crowd or mass.’ Indeed, the church’s YouTube channel lists a live recording from last Sunday’s service that was one hour, forty-seven minutes long, with virtually no one in the congregation or clergy wearing a face covering.”
Attorneys from the conservative Christian legal organization LIBERTY COUNSEL are representing the plaintiffs in the case, and ANNOUNCED THE FACT THAT THE CHURCHES ALREADY FILED AN APPEAL just hours after Gettleman’s ruling came down.
“Our Romanian pastors know well the value of freedom. Never did they imagine that in the Land of the Free they would be prohibited from holding church services. This happened all too frequently in Communist Romania,” Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said in a statement.
He also stated that: “These churches set the model of incorporating social distancing and hygiene into their worship. The government should treat them equally to other non-religious gatherings and businesses. The First Amendment demands nothing less. We have immediately appealed this decision and look forward to presenting arguments at the Court of Appeals.”
Governors and Elected Local Officials are sued by churches in 15 states
Numerous churches around the country have filed suits challenging assembly restrictions imposed during the Covid-19 pandemic, with varying results.
All together, governors and/or municipal elected officials from 15 states were sued over restrictions imposed for religious gatherings in California, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Tennessee, Virginia, and Washington. In some states there are multiple law suits going on at the same time against the elected local officials. Out of all these cases 6 of them are being represented by LIBERTY COUNSEL.
Steven V. Bonica