On Saturday, May 16, 2020, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued an order indicating that two Illinois churches are unlikely to succeed in their efforts to challenge Governor Pritzker’s Executive Order which limits gatherings to no more than ten people.
By way of background, the churches filed their federal lawsuit on May 6. They asked the court for an immediate order enjoining the Governor from enforcing the Executive Order against them. The churches asserted various claims under the United States Constitution and a state law claim under the Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Just six days later, the court denied the churches’ request and called it “ill-founded and selfish.” The court noted that the churches had failed to even address the Supreme Court case of Jacobson v Commonwealth of Mass., which holds that all rights are subject to restrictions which are necessary to protect a community “against an epidemic of disease which threatens the safety of its members.” 197 U.S. 11, 28 (1905). Under this standard, the court found that the churches had a less than negligible likelihood of succeeding on the merits of their claim.
Within hours after receiving the trial court’s order, the churches appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, asking for an immediate injunction pending further appeal. But the Court of Appeals denied their request. The panel of three appellate judges noted that the Executive Order “does not discriminate against religious activities, nor does it show hostility toward religion,” and “appears instead to impose neutral and generally applicable rules.” The Court of Appeals rejected the churches’ argument that their worship services were “comparable to secular activities permitted under the Executive Order, such as shopping.” While the churches can now proceed with their full appeal without the benefit of an injunction, the writing seems to be on the wall that the Illinois churches will ultimately lose.
The Seventh Circuit’s decision will make it harder for other religious groups to challenge Governor Pritzker’s temporary Executive Order. But religious groups should nevertheless keep an eye out for evidence that they are being singled out or targeted by the State. The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich stand ready to help religious groups across the country better understand their rights and how they may pro-actively address the challenges and restrictions they now face.