Five Lake County churches withdraw suit against Pritzker
Five Lake County churches that alleged Gov. J.B. Pritzker violated their religious freedom by imposing restrictions on the size of their gatherings in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have withdrawn their lawsuit after Illinois recast its 10-person limit as guidance, not a mandate.
"This is a total and complete victory for people of faith," said Peter Breen, attorney for Living Waters Assembly of God in Grayslake and Senior Pastor Richard Valkanet, New Hope Christian Fellowship in Mundelein and Senior Pastor Aaron Malusky, Fox Lake Community Church in Fox Lake and Senior Pastor Wayne Christiansen, as well as two churches in Zion.
"Gov. Pritzker has entirely reversed course and lifted his mandates on Illinois churches," said Breen in an email. "Until this afternoon, the limit was a hard cap of 10 people, without regard to the size of a church. Now, there are no mandates, just suggested guidelines for capacity."
Addressing the lawsuit Thursday during a news conference, Pritzker said his administration provides "guidance, not mandatory restrictions" to ensure congregants' safety.
To that end, he pointed to Illinois Department of Public Health guidelines available on its website.
"We're not providing restrictions. We're simply providing the best recommendations we can for keeping people safe," he said, referring to recommendations that places of worship limit indoor capacity to 10 people or fewer. Alternatively, the health department suggests "limiting attendance to 25% of building capacity or a maximum of 100 attendees, whichever is lower."
Other recommendations include having congregants wear face coverings, that they refrain from singing or reciting, and that groups of people who live together sit at least 6 feet from other groups. The health department also recommends rigorous and frequent cleaning of high-traffic areas, disinfecting shared items and installing hand sanitizers, in addition to discouraging the sharing of food or beverages and greetings that break physical distance.
"Pastors should use their judgment. The science and data and should follow the recommendations that have been made," Pritzker said.
The suit claimed restrictions violated the Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act and Illinois Constitution, as well as the right to free speech and assembly.
The organization has brought similar litigation on behalf of churches in California, New Jersey, Mississippi and elsewhere.
Pastor Ken Fielding, of Zion's Christian Assembly of God, says while his church celebrates the governor's decision, it won't "throw caution to the wind."
"We'll still have in place common-sense guidelines," he said, adding he will have services Sunday that typically attract 90 people. He said there normally is space for more than 500 people in two rooms.
"No one wants anyone to get sick. ... We're about ministering to the souls and hearts, but we have to watch over their bodies, too."
Face masks will be available for those who want them but won't be required, Fielding said.
"If you're in a position where you need to (wear a mask) you certainly can," he said.
State health officials advise masks for everyone in public spaces.