Northwest Bible Baptist to resume services Sunday despite stay-at-home order

An Elgin-area church plans to reopen for services Sunday in defiance of a statewide stay-at-home order and restrictions on large gatherings.

Attorneys for Northwest Bible Baptist Church last week sent a letter to Gov. J.B. Pritzker, notifying him of the church's intent to resume in-person services at reduced capacity with increased safety measures.

"We are grateful for the guidance our government has provided through this pandemic and have respectfully refrained from gathering for weeks," Pastor Keith Gomez said in a written release. "However, we are persuaded that now is the time to safely resume meeting together in-person."

The church previously defied an executive order. The school it operates, Northwest Baptist Academy, remained open until March 23, though the governor ordered schools closed March 15.

During Monday's COVID-19 news briefing, Pritzker asked houses of worship to think twice before reopening.

"You're potentially putting hundreds of people in danger," he said. "That's something that I think people should be thinking about, parishioners and the faith leaders who are conducting those services. It's not just about yourself; it's about the many who will attend and, even more importantly, the many people who will come in contact with the people who attended those services."

Church leaders and their counsel argue services can be held safely with precautions. The church will ask anyone 65 or older or considered at-risk to continue watching services online. Masks will be required. Doors will remain open. Everyone entering the church will have their temperature taken. Anyone displaying symptoms will be turned away. Alternate row seating will be implemented and hand-sanitizing stations added.

Jeremy Dys, special counsel for litigation and communications at First Liberty Institute, said churches like Northwest Bible Baptist have been restricted unfairly.

"If you're able to safely social distance while engaging in grocery shopping or visiting the plumbing section of Home Depot, it would seem that you should be able to do so at a church as well, or any other house of worship for that matter," Dys said. "It's frustrating when you hear the governor talk about how in-person services at houses of worship in Illinois won't continue until after there's a vaccine, if one is ever created. I think that does nothing to help the conversation because it just simply communicates that what's in mind is not a temporary shutdown but a permanent one or at least an indefinite one."

Dys said a copy of the letter drafted by First Liberty Institute on the church's behalf was sent to Kane County Sheriff Ron Hain's office. Hain on Monday confirmed receipt of the letter. The sheriff said he told church officials any enforcement of the governor's executive orders this Sunday is unlikely due to what he called "the gray area" surrounding them. He cited a recent announcement by the U.S. attorney general's office that it will monitor state and local governments to assure they do not infringe on constitutional rights.

"What I have told the state's attorney in Kane County and what I've told the director of the health department in Kane is if we are going to take any action against the church, we would need a court order to do so," Hain said.

Pritzker has said he discourages law enforcement from arresting people who do not adhere to pandemic-related executive orders.

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