The legal battle over government-mandated closure of churches is now before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Liberty Counsel filed an appeal Wednesday to the high court on behalf of Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church, a Chicago church that is being threatened with closure for defying a state order that bans church gatherings larger than 10 people. Liberty Counsel also is representing Logos Baptist Ministries.
Meanwhile, Thomas More Society filed an appeal to the Supreme Court over the weekend on behalf of South Bay Pentecostal Church, a Chula Vista, Calif., congregation that’s also under state restrictions.
Either case could resolve the nationwide legal debate over the state-mandated closure of churches during the coronavirus pandemic.
Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh has given the state of Illinois until Thursday night to respond to Liberty Counsel’s appeal. Kavanaugh handles emergency applications from the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Illinois.
Supreme Court Justice Elana Kagan, who handles emergency applications from the Ninth Circuit, also gave California until Thursday night to respond.
The churches argue they can meet safely while practicing social distancing and following health guidelines. The briefs argue the closures violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
Appeals courts have split on the issue of church closures, with the Seventh and Ninth Circuits ruling against churches but the Fifth and Sixth Circuits siding with them.
The appeal on behalf of the Chicago church notes that Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker exempted liquor stores, warehouses and supercenter stores from the 10-person limit.
“But religious services of more than 10 people are prohibited even if distancing and hygiene guidelines are followed religiously,” the Chicago church’s appeal reads. “… Neither logic nor common experience allow the conclusion that sanitized, socially-distanced worship services pose more risk than the myriad [of] other Essential Activities that are not subject to Governor Pritzker’s 10-person limit.
“… With each passing Sunday, Churches are suffering under the yoke of the Governor’s unconstitutional Orders prohibiting Churches from freely exercising their sincerely held religious beliefs requiring assembling themselves together to worship God.”
The appeal on behalf of the California church was filed before California Gov. Gavin Newsom said churches could meet at a 25 percent capacity. The appeal since has been amended to argue that churches are still being treated differently than stores.
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