Pritzker lifts 10-person limit on religious gatherings after facing legal pressure

Pritzker lifts 10-person limit on religious gatherings after facing legal pressure

After being asked by the U.S. Supreme Court to reply to religious groups’ objections, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced he was ending the 10-person limit on religious gatherings.

Hours before the U.S. Supreme Court’s deadline for response to a request for relief filed by Chicago area churches, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced during his May 28 press conference that the 10-person limit on religious gatherings would expire May 29.

As a result, new Illinois Department of Public Health guidelines will take over as guidance and recommendations, rather than mandates.

The decision to not continue this 10-person hard limit into Phase 3 of the “Restore Illinois” plan comes after increased legal pressure. On May 27, the Supreme Court requested a response from the governor regarding a motion for emergency injunctive relief in Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church, et al. v. J.B. Pritzker. In their Supreme Court filing, the churches sought relief from the high court in time for celebration of the Christian holy day of Pentecost, arguing the restrictions were unconstitutional.

The application for relief was sought by Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church in Chicago and Logos Baptist Ministries in Niles, Illinois. In their request, the churches emphasized that “[n]one of the myriad other Essential Activities in Order 32 is subject to the 10-person limit imposed on religious worship.”

The press conference announcement and newly weakened IDPH guidelines served as basis for Pritzker’s argument against the churches’ request. “[T]he Governor has announced that after [May 29] religious gatherings will no longer be subject to mandatory restrictions; instead, faith leaders will be provided with guidance from the Illinois Department of Public Health regarding best practices to prevent the transmission of COVID-19,” Pritzker’s office argued in response to the request for relief.

The churches filed a reply to Pritzker’s response the morning of May 29, stating that “[me]ere hours before his Response was due in this Court, the Governor announced a sudden change in his 10-person limit on religious worship services … after vigorously defending his policy in both lower courts, and having announced barely 3 weeks ago that it would be 12 to 18 months before numerical limits on worship services were lifted…”

While Pritzker’s extended stay-at-home order included “exercise of religion” as an essential activity, it capped gatherings at 10 people. The governor’s “Restore Illinois” plan states that Phase 3 – the phase that Illinois is currently moving into – places a 10-person gathering limit on groups. Phase 4 increases that limit to 50 people, which continues until the final phase, in which everything is reopened.

The new IDPH guidelines still recommend religious gatherings be held to a limit of 10 congregants with social distancing, but no longer serves as a mandate. The guidelines add, however, that “where the 10-person limit cannot be followed in places of worship” to consider “limiting attendance to 25% of building capacity or a maximum of 100 attendees, whichever is lower.” Among many religious communities expected to expand services and worship following this announcement, Bishop Thomas Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield announced that Catholic churches in the diocese will resume Mass June 6-7 following the 25% capacity guideline.

Other IDPH recommendations regarding religious gatherings include:

  • Remote services and drive-in services are promoted as safest options.
  • For in-person worship: congregate outdoors; maintain a 10-person crowd size, or when necessary a maximum of 25% of building capacity or 100 people, whichever is less; continue social distancing; wear masks; avoid singing or group recitation; avoid food and beverage in worship or community events; avoid greetings and person-to-person contact.

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