LENA, ILLINOIIS — On Sunday, U.S. District Judge John Lee rejected a federal lawsuit filed by Pastor Steve Cassell and Beloved Church in Lena, Illinois accusing Gov. JB Pritzker of showing an “illegal and discriminatory hostility to religious practice, churches, and people of faith”.
The lawsuit sought an injunction to allow Beloved Church to hold in-person services for its congregation of roughly 80 people.
Acknowledging the small religious gatherings allowed by Gov. JB Pritzker’s stay-at-home order “are imperfect substitutes” for traditional church services, Judge Lee denied the temporary restraining order. Lee found Pritzker’s order to be constitutional, noting the extended stay-at-home order allows for churches to hold drive-in services, online services, or in-person services for up to 10 people.
Lee cited two cases of Supreme Court precedent which have held that the freedom of religion does not include the right to expose the community to an outbreak of a contagious disease.
“Even the foundational rights secured by the First Amendment are not without limits; they are subject to restriction if necessary to further compelling government interests—and, certainly, the prevention of mass infections and deaths qualifies. After all, without life, there can be no liberty or pursuit of happiness,” Lee wrote.
Despite the courts ruling, roughly 100 people attended Beloved Church on Sunday, according to WREX-TV, which was denied entrance but interviewed attendees and neighbors who counted congregants.
Worshippers stood with their families, but stayed six feet away from others and were provided hand sanitizer and masks, according to Thomas Ciesielka, a spokesman for the Thomas More Society, which represents the church in court.
The judge said blocking Pritzker’s order not only would risk the lives of the church’s members, but their families, neighbors, co-workers, and surrounding communities.
“While Plaintiffs’ interest in holding large, communal in-person worship services is undoubtedly important, it does not outweigh the government’s interest in protecting the residents of Illinois from a pandemic,” Judge Lee wrote.
Pritzker said Sunday that the order is temporary and faith leaders should make keeping parishioners safe a top priority.
Bill Deets who attended church Sunday morning at the Beloved Church in Lena said “God’s laws are above man’s laws, and I’m going to follow God’s law and I’d be willing to go to jail for it,” parishioner Bill Deets said.
“You should have the freedom to decide how you minister to your folks,” Pastor Steve Cassell said.
Lena police Chief Steve Schaible, a defendant in the lawsuit, referred all inquiries to his attorney, Dominick Lanzito. Lanzito said it was his understanding there was no enforcement action of the executive order taken at Sunday’s service.