URBANA, Ill. (WCIA) — A conservative Chicago law firm has joined the onslaught of lawyers filing suits against Governor JB Pritzker in the wake of executive orders issued during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Attorneys from the Thomas More Society filed a federal complaint asking for a temporary restraining order on behalf of Champaign’s Jesus House Restoration Ministries — a Christian rehabilitation program — and local pastor Dustin Brown on May 12.
Brown is a pastor at The Table, a church operated by the Ministries which, according to the lawsuit, normally holds Sunday services that draw around 75 people — often people who may displaced or experiencing homeless.
Those services continued despite Pritzker’s Stay-At-Home order, first in March then with extensions through April and later, May. The lawsuit noted that the church services moved outdoors — first in a public park then in a parking lot, both while “socially distanced,” with chairs six feet apart.
In April, the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District issued a cease-and-desist letter to the church. It was at least the second time CUPHD officials had reached out regarding the church services, with the first time being to request the church not hold services in the park.
The lawsuit acknowledges, however, that despite placing chairs six feet apart, post-service prayer didn’t involve the use of personal protective equipment: Staff members who met one-on-one with congregants afterward to lay hands on them while praying are “willing” to wear PPE “if necessary”, but, the lawsuit says, have chosen not to do so “thus far.”
The legal complaint points at the church’s distribution of meals and clothing following the service as being unfairly targeted: Because the church is doing that work — and not its drop-in center for the homeless, deemed categorically as an “essential service” — its gatherings are limited to 10 people per the limit set in Pritzker’s executive order, which was based off guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The complaint argues that if a nonprofit/social service agency was providing those services, the services wouldn’t be subject to the 10-person gathering rule. But because The Table is a church, it was categorized as “nonessential” in the executive order language — meaning it is legally limited to the 10-person gathering rule.
The suit alleges Brown and other church staffers fear “prosecution” or potentially “arrest” if they continue to hold services — which they plan to do outside “every Sunday until it is safe to resume indoor, normal services.”
In a statement, Brown said that “In these dark times, Illinoisans need Almighty God at least as much as the spirits dispensed at the state’s liquor stores. The churches and pastors of Illinois are no less ‘essential’ than its liquor stores or marijuana dispensaries to the health and well-being of its residents.”
On Tuesday — after announcing last week that drive-in services would be permitted in Phase 3 of the state’s five-phase, Restore Illinois reopening plan — Pritzker said his administration and the Illinois Department of Public Health have been requesting churches submit ideas on how they can operate safely.
“We are working with churches for outdoor services,” he said. “We want people to be able to worship – I think it’s vitally important. All we want to make sure is that when they do it…they’re safe. We’ll work with any churches or taking plans from churches and trying to work with them.”
Because the complaint alleges violations of the “Free Exercise of Religion, Peaceable Assembly, and Freedom of Speech, as guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution and violation of the right to Equal Protection under the Fourteenth Amendment,” the lawsuit was filed in federal court in Urbana.
The court filing seeks an injunction and temporary restraining order against the governor and others — like CUPHD — from interfering with the church’s ongoing services.