Illinois Church Defies Stay-at-Home Order Again, Holds Service Days After Filing Lawsuit Against Governor Pritzker

An Illinois church on Sunday defied Governor J.B. Pritzker's extended stay-at-home order by holding services, days after it filed a federal lawsuit contesting the governor's executive actions to limit the coronavirus' spread.

The Beloved Church of Lena in Stephenson County, which has a roughly 80-person congregation, held services beginning in the morning, according to local media outlets. Since Pritzker's stay-at-home order went into effect on March 21, Pastor Stephen Cassell has flouted its ban on public gatherings and continued to hold meetings for worship, Bible study and prayer. The state has issued the Beloved Church of Lena with "cease-and-desist" orders amid the COVID-19 pandemic to stop it from putting people in harm's way.

The Thomas More Society, a Chicago-based conservative law firm, filed a federal lawsuit with the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in Rockford on behalf of the church on Thursday contesting the stay-at-home order.

In the suit, Cassell and the firm alleged that Pritzer's orders were discriminatory against those practicing religion and "intentionally denigrated Illinois churches and pastors and people of faith by relegating them to second-class citizenship."

Pritzker, the Stephenson County Sheriff, the region's Department of Public Health administrator, and the Village of Lena's Chief of Police were named as defendants in the suit.

The governor has ordered churches to either cancel their services or conduct them online, as the state battles with containing the coronavirus outbreak through the stay-at-home measure and various other mitigation methods.

Ben Jacobi, an attorney representing Sheriff David Snyders and the County Health Department, told Newsweek that "the court denied the Church's Motion for Temporary Restraining Order and Preliminary Injunction" on Saturday night and "issued a thorough legal opinion explaining its decision" on Sunday.

"Stephenson County Sheriff Snyders and County Health Department Administrator Beintema are happy that the court rejected the injunction requested against them, and will consider their options after further digesting the court's analysis," Jacobi added.

After filing the suit, the Beloved Church on Thursday announced the Sunday service in a Facebook post. It "is going to be another epic one!" the church wrote. "The momentum of the victory we are getting over fear and anything else that has tried pulling us down is as fervent as ever! Can't wait for service with you, Beloved!"

Thomas Ciesielka, a spokesperson for the Thomas More Society, said 60 to 80 people attended the service Sunday and described it as "uneventful," according to the Chicago Tribune. Sunday's service had "about the same number for average attendance," he said, noting that social distancing was maintained at the event and attendees were provided hand sanitizer. Police did not break up the service and no action has been taken against the church for their defiance of the stay-at-home order at the time of publication.

On the same day the lawsuit was filed, Pritzker modified his stay-at-home order to list the exercise of religion as an essential activity for which leaving the house is permitted. However in the new order, which went into effect on Friday and continues through May 30, all religious gatherings are still only allowed if they are of 10 people or less, and those in attendance can comply with social distancing.

"Religious organizations and houses of worship are encouraged to use online or drive-in services to protect the health and safety of their congregants," the order said.

A blurred photo of the inside of a church sanctuary that is filled with people in the pews, and the pastor stands under a large cross at the altar. ChristinLola/Getty