Lake County Churches Sue Governor for “Ignoring Science” to Continue Religious Discrimination

THOMAS MORE SOCIETY — A lawsuit filed on May 27, 2020, in Lake County’s Illinois Circuit Court for the Nineteenth Judicial District charges Governor “JB” Pritzker with violating religious freedoms by issuing executive orders against houses of worship that ignore the science behind effective COVID-19 precautions and disregard Illinois’ current infection rate. The Thomas More Society is representing five Lake County, Illinois, Christian churches in the complaint that seeks to hold the governor accountable for his violations of the Illinois Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. A hearing on the Thomas More Society’s motion for Temporary Restraining Order is on Friday, May 29, before Judge David P. Brodsky.

“Illinois now has the harshest shutdown order in the country, with little regard for the rights of people of faith and ignoring the current best science,” said Peter Breen, Vice President and Senior Counsel to the Thomas More Society. “Every one of Illinois’ neighboring states has ‘followed the science’ and taken strong steps to safely reopen both their for-profit businesses and their not-for-profit houses of worship. Our prior lawsuits against Pritzker each resulted in rolling back of restrictions on religious services—first drive-in services and small gatherings, and then outdoor services. On the eve of the Christian holy day of Pentecost, it’s time to finish the job and secure a safe reopening of our church buildings, giving churches at least equal treatment to law offices, liquor stores, and large retailers.”

Announcing the imminent arrival of the governor’s “Phase 3” of his plan to “reopen Illinois” on May 29, Pritzker declared that, notwithstanding the loosening of assembly limits for many small businesses (restaurants with outdoor seating, for instance), church restrictions will remain, without any date certain for its sunset. The Lake County churches’ complaint charges that the continued imposition of the arbitrary 10-person hard cap by Pritzker is discriminatory and violates the Free Exercise of Religion under the Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act and Illinois Constitution, the constitutional right to Free Speech and Assembly, and the constitutional right to Due Process and Equal Protection of Law. This will be the first lawsuit where Pritzker faces a test on the merits for violation of Illinois’ strong religious freedom laws.

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In response to the Thomas More Society’s lawsuit on behalf of The Beloved Church of Lena, Illinois, Pritzker reversed his bans on drive-in services and small group services of up to 10 people. The not-for-profit, national public interest law firm has brought lawsuits on behalf of houses of worship and religious leaders across the country, from California to Mississippi to New Jersey. The Thomas More Society’s suit against California Governor Gavin Newsom is now pending before United States Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, who ordered expedited briefing on their emergency petition for injunction.

The Lake County churches and pastors who have filed suit are:

  • The Christian Assembly of God, in Zion, Illinois, and Senior Pastor Ken Fielding
  • Living Waters Assembly of God, in Grayslake, Illinois, and Senior Pastor Richard Valkanet
  • New Hope Christian Fellowship, in Mundelein, Illinois, and Senior Pastor Aaron Malusky
  • Fox Lake Community Church, in Fox Lake, Illinois, and Senior Pastor Wayne Christiansen
  • Christ Community Church, in Zion, Illinois, and Senior Pastor Ken Langley

Thomas More Society Senior Counsel Martin Whittaker explained, “There is absolutely no reason for these churches and others in Illinois to be operating under different standards than businesses and other organizations. Limiting the number of persons in a church worship service to ten is a ridiculous move, when offices and manufacturers allow the same people to gather at their workplace in far greater numbers.”

In what Whittaker labels as “particularly egregious irony,” the members of Zion’s Christian Assembly operate a community food pantry, one for which they receive state and municipal funding. Under the governor’s rules, this food pantry – in Christian Assembly’s building – is open and allowed, even encouraged, to serve the community at this time, without any capped attendance. The regular Thursday distribution on May 21 lawfully allowed 25 people to gather in the same space, which would be illegal three days later, only because the purpose for the Sunday gathering was prayer and worship.

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“There is no logic that can defend why a Sunday worship gathering would be more dangerous to one’s health than a food pantry distribution in the same location, with the same number of people. Yet the former is prohibited, and the latter encouraged,” observed Whittaker. “That is blunt defiance of the Illinois Constitution’s Bill of Rights and of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”

Dr. George Delgado, M.D., serves as an expert consultant to the churches. In a declaration to the court, he stated that “a limit on the number of persons attending church services diminishes the risk of transmission to a far smaller degree than other prophylactic measures that churches can implement.” Delgado concludes that the risk of transmission in churches celebrating indoors with those prophylactic measures is “far less than the risk of transmission in ‘essential business’ activities like grocery stores and manufacturing plants operating without attendance limitations.” Delgado’s studies showed that “the calculated risk of contracting COVID-19 at a house of worship is 0.125 or 12% the risk [of contracting it] at the supermarket, and no one is arguing that going to the grocery store is not safe.”

“In his intolerance for and denigration of religious practices, Illinois’ governor has chosen to ignore the science behind the spread of infectious diseases in the same way he has chosen to ignore the fact that he is not legally allowed to keep extending his emergency powers indefinitely,” offered Whittaker. “Through the COVID-19 crisis, Pritzker has run roughshod over the Illinois Constitution and Religious Freedom Restoration Act, beating down churches while exempting his own family from the mandates he has proclaimed.”

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Whittaker noted that this the first time that a group of Illinois churches and pastors have banded together to challenge Pritzker’s autocratic handling of COVID-19-related stay-at-home and reopening orders.

According to the complaint, the principal reason announced for Pritzker’s orders was to “flatten the curve” to preserve hospital capacity in Illinois, and so prevent overwhelming the health care system. But that aim has now been achieved. Based on his professional clinical experience with infectious diseases and modeling of the COVID-19 contagion and spread, Delgado reports that in “Illinois, the statistics support the flattening of the curve. The percentage of positive tests out of all the tests ever conducted is about 15%. As of May 23, the most recent batch of tests, however, had a rate of only 9%, much better than Governor Pritzker’s threshold of less than 20%. Hospitalizations, including in the intensive care units, have been declining at a relatively steady rate, at least since April 20, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. Delgado concludes that “due to mitigation measures carried throughout Illinois, the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic has been altered; the ‘curve has been flattened’.”

Read the Thomas More Society’s Verified Complaint on behalf of The Christian Assembly of God, Living Waters Assembly of God, New Hope Christian Fellowship, Fox Lake Community Church, Christ Community Church, and their respective pastors, Ken Fielding, Richard Valkanet, Aaron Malusky, Wayne Christiansen, and Ken Langley, filed May 27, 2020, with the Illinois Circuit Court for the Nineteenth Judicial District – Lake County, Illinois, in The Christian Assembly of God, et al v. Jay Robert Pritzker, Governor of Illinois here.

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