THOMAS MORE SOCIETY — A Champaign, Illinois, Christian ministry is suing Governor “JB” Pritzker for violating the freedoms of ministries, churches, and people of faith with discriminatory and unconstitutional executive orders issued during the COVID-19 crisis. A Christian addiction recovery center offers many of the same services as secular organizations and should be regulated equivalently. That is not what is happening in Illinois. Attorneys from the Thomas More Society have filed a federal complaint and asked for a temporary restraining order on behalf of Jesus House Restoration Ministries (which operates The Table church) and Pastor Dustin Brown with the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois in Urbana on May 12, 2020.
What is unusual about this case is that Jesus House Restoration Ministries operates a long-term addiction program, to which Illinois courts and the Illinois Department of Corrections regularly refer individuals. The Table is a church operated by Jesus House and holds Sunday services that typically attract around 75 worshippers, a considerable number of whom are displaced or homeless. In recognition of the coronavirus-prompted social distancing requirements, church services have been held outdoors, first in a public park, then in a private parking lot.
The church has been subjected to harassment by public health officials and has been the subject of a cease and desist order. The Table and Pastor Brown have stated that they intend to hold public worship services – outside and employing social distancing – every Sunday until it is safe to resume indoor, normal services. Thomas Olp, Thomas More Society Vice President and Senior Counsel, noted that the church and its pastor are justifiably fearful of prosecution for themselves and their congregation if they continue to do so, without the court’s intervention.
Following worship, the church serves hot meals (prepared off-site and individually wrapped in cellophane) and distributes clothing to those in need. These activities by The Table and Jesus House mirror the social service activities of a daytime drop-in center for the homeless located just across the street from the parking lot they use for their worship services. The drop-in center is not subject to the 10-person maximum rule – but the church is. With drop-in centers generally, there are no time limits and no 10-person maximum, and displaced persons are encouraged to come inside, wash their clothes, watch television, and play board games.
As the United States District Court for the District of Kansas observed with its April 2020 ruling in First Baptist v. Kelly, “churches and other religious activities appear to have been singled out among essential functions for stricter treatment.” And it found that the same health and safety concerns that might be present in a church service would be just as present at a non-church-operated social services center.
“This complaint touches at the very essence of what it means to be American. The pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower fled their homeland in order to be able to worship in freedom, a right that this nation’s founding fathers ascribed to and secured for all Americans,” explained Olp. “Right now, in Illinois, people can gather at liquor stores, but not in churches.”
Jesus House Restoration Ministries and Pastor Brown believe 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.”
The federal court filing seeks an injunction and temporary restraining order against the governor, and those under his power, from interfering with the church’s ministry and services, which are being exercised according to applicable social distancing guidelines. The lawsuit charges Illinois’ governor with violation of the church and pastor’s rights to 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 complaint notes:
- Illinois’ COVID-19-prompted stay-at-home orders violate the constitutional rights of churches and religious believers.
- In Illinois, one can enter an “essential” dispensary to obtain recreational marijuana, but cannot attend an outdoor worship ceremony, even when social distancing is employed.
- Governor Pritzker, in his executive orders, originally declared churches and church ministries “non-essential” and commanded them to shut down. He forbade congregants from leaving their homes to attend church or church ministries. On the eve of Easter, the holiest day on the Christian calendar, Pritzker expressly prohibited even no-contact, drive-in services in Illinois church parking lots. At the same time, he declared a laundry list of businesses to be “essential,” from liquor stores to lawyers to landscapers.
- Hours after the Thomas More Society file a lawsuit in federal court challenging Pritzker’s church ban, he issued a new executive order classifying “the free exercise of religion” as an essential activity and authorizing drive-in church services for the first time. The new order also authorized in-person church services for the first time, but only if they involve no more than 10 people. The new order makes “the free exercise of religion” the only exempted business or activity expressly subject to the 10-person limit.
- The governor’s statements and actions during the coronavirus epidemic demonstrate an illegal and discriminatory hostility to religious practice, churches, and people of faith. He has flagrantly violated the fundamental religious liberties of Illinoisans, in violation of the First Amendment.
“Individual rights secured by the Constitution do not disappear during a public health crisis,” declared Olp. “Governor Pritzker has intentionally denigrated Illinois churches and pastors and people of faith by relegating them to second-class citizenship. He has no compelling justification for his discriminatory treatment of churches and pastors and people of faith, nor has he attempted in any way to tailor his regulations to the least restrictive means necessary to meet any arguable compelling interest.”
Read the Thomas More Society’s Complaint on behalf of Jesus House Restoration Ministries and its Pastor, Dustin Brown, filed May 12, 2020, with the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois Western Division in Jesus House Restoration Ministries and Dustin Brown v. Jay Robert Pritzker here.
SOURCE Thomas More Society