Public Health

7th Circuit upholds former cap on religious congregants in Illinois

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The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Chicago refused Tuesday to block a 10-person cap on religious congregants in a free exercise lawsuit filed by two Illinois churches.

Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote the unanimous panel opinion, issued after the court previously denied the churches’ motion for an injunction pending appeal.

The 7th Circuit said the case wasn’t moot, even though Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker lifted the 10-person cap as applied to religious services in a May 29 executive order. The new order encourages, but does not require, churches to limit indoor services to 10 people or to host drive-in or online services.

The 7th Circuit also said the case wasn’t moot because Illinois could revert to a mandatory cap if COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations see a sustained rise.

The two churches that sued were the Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church of Chicago and the Logos Baptist Ministries of suburban Niles, Illinois.

A federal judge found that the Illinois policy was neutral with respect to religion and supported by a compelling need to safeguard the public health during the COVID-19 pandemic. The judge also denied a preliminary injunction to block the policy. The 7th Circuit affirmed.

The churches claimed that a 10-person cap discriminated against religion, since the cap did not apply to grocery shopping, warehouses and soup kitchens. Illinois pointed to its ban on concerts, movies and other public events to justify the cap.

The 7th Circuit said judges on other appeals courts had supported both comparisons, but it was siding with a May concurring opinion by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

Roberts issued the opinion when the Supreme Court refused to block restrictions on religious services in California. Those restrictions limited attendance at worship services to 25% of building capacity or a maximum of 100 people.

Roberts had noted that similar or more severe restrictions applied to secular gatherings such as concerts, movie showings, spectator sports and theatrical performances.

“We line up with Chief Justice Roberts,” Easterbrook wrote. “It would be foolish to pretend that worship services are exactly like any of the possible comparisons, but they seem most like other congregate functions that occur in auditoriums, such as concerts and movies. Any of these indoor activities puts members of multiple families close to one another for extended periods, while invisible droplets containing the virus may linger in the air.”

Easterbrook said congregate functions in auditoriums can be replaced by other options, such as streaming video, as can religious services. But it is hard to see how services such as food production, care for the elderly and the distribution of vital goods through warehouses could be halted, he said.

“Reducing the rate of transmission would not be much use if people starved or could not get medicine,” Easterbrook said.

“Feeding the body requires teams of people to work together in physical spaces, but churches can feed the spirit in other ways,” Easterbrook wrote.

Hat tip to How Appealing.

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