A recent Supreme Court decision against a church has dashed hopes that judges will overrule coronavirus-related worship restrictions anytime soon.
A three-judge panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously rejected a challenge to an Illinois ban on church gatherings of more than 10 persons. Though Gov. J.B. Pritzker has since withdrawn the restriction, the court agreed with Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church and Logos Baptist Ministries that the case was not moot because he could reimpose it.
But the court dismissed claims of religious discrimination, citing Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts’ May 29 opinion in South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom. Circuit Judge Frank Easterbrook found church gatherings differ from grocery shopping, warehouse operations, or even soup kitchens: “Feeding the body requires teams of people to work together in physical spaces, but churches can feed the spirit in other ways.”
A similar challenge to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s stay-at-home order suffered the same fate. Elkhorn Baptist Church focused its lawsuit on whether the governor had the authority to issue the executive order, but the Oregon Supreme Court’s unsigned opinion undercut any religious liberty claim, also citing the South Bay ruling.
The churches in both cases vowed to fight on. The Chicago congregation will ask the full panel of 7th Circuit judges to hear their cases. And Pacific Justice Institute attorney Ray Hacke, who represented Elkhorn Baptist, said he plans to file a separate lawsuit in federal court arguing Brown wrongly treated church gatherings differently than the George Floyd protests in Portland.
But Hacke said Roberts’ decision in South Bay presents a hurdle: “It’s all but given states carte blanche to infringe on constitutionally protected rights as long as it’s done in the name of public safety.” —S.W.