Editor’s note: Updated May 13 with court ruling.
Illinois Baptist pastors are expressing concern that governmental restrictions on reopening the economy might unduly impact churches. In Illinois and in other states, some churches have launched legal challenges to shelter-in-place orders they say are unfair to places of worship.
IBSA Executive Director Nate Adams said many pastors believe the five-phase “Restore Illinois” plan, released May 5 by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, is too cautious. It limits gatherings to fewer than 50 people until a COVID-19 vaccine or effective treatment is developed.
“It’s very uncertain when a vaccine may be available,” Adams told Baptist Press. “To reach phase five, the current plan says that there should be a vaccine or highly effective treatment widely available, or the elimination of any new cases over a sustained period. That’s the high bar that seems to most people that would be well into next year, or longer.”
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which has advocated successfully for churches in other states during the pandemic, is counseling IBSA on whether a lawsuit should be filed in Illinois.
“We are very concerned about the state’s reopening plan in Illinois, as well as some other states around the nation,” ADF senior counsel Ryan Tucker said May 11. “You can’t treat religious gatherings less favorably than other similar, secular gatherings. Certainly, we appreciate the efforts of officials to protect the health and safety of the population, but the government cannot trample on our fundamental freedoms in the process.”
Tucker said the question is whether reopening plans target churches separately from other groups or businesses. “Any time you single out the church, that’s an immediate red flag,” Tucker said. “If the order treats the church worse, then that in and of itself is grounds for a possible legal challenge.”
He said if schools, theaters, and retail establishments are allowed to open while churches must remain closed, “that creates a concern that must be explored.”
Adams and IBSA will host an online town hall meeting this Thursday (May 14) to hear how churches statewide plan to reopen under “Restore Illinois” guidelines.
“That’s where our focus has been so far, in assisting churches in innovating,” Adams said, “and keeping an eye on potential religious freedom issues….We haven’t yet come to the point where we felt like there were specific cases of religious freedom discrimination, but we are monitoring those carefully.”
He said IBSA is in discussion with ADF about when and under what circumstances further action might be warranted. “We’re going to look to ADF’s counsel in how best to move forward.”
Some non-SBC churches in Illinois have challenged Pritzker’s reopening plan. On May 13, a federal judge denied a request by two Chicago-area churches seeking a temporary restraining order against the stay-at-home order. Judge Robert Gettleman had previously declined a bid by the churches, Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church and Logos Baptist Ministries, in time to meet for Sunday services on May 10. Elim Romanian held an in-person service May 10 anyway. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, about 70 people attended.
In the May 13 ruling, Gettleman said a restraining order “would risk the lives of congregants…their family members, friends, co-workers and other members of their communities with whom they come in contact,” according to the Chicago Tribune.
Earlier this month, a federal district court ruled against another non-Southern Baptist church, Beloved Church in Lena, Ill., which had sued to block Pritzker’s stay-at-home order when it was extended through the end of May.
Challenges in other states
Tucker said ADF is concerned with government restrictions placed on churches in several states, including Washington, California, and Indiana. The organization has also advocated for church worship rights in Mississippi, Kansas, North Carolina and Tennessee during the pandemic.
Meanwhile in Virginia, a reopening plan set to take effect May 15 will allow churches to hold in-person services with 50% capacity. The reopening plan, released May 8, came after nearly 200 Virginia pastors sent a letter to Northam last week asking for modifications to executive orders that banned gatherings of groups of more than 10 people.
Brandon Pickett, associate executive director of the SBC of Virginia, said Virginia Southern Baptists are thankful Northam heard their concerns.
“Our main thing was, first off, we understood the seriousness of the pandemic, that our churches were autonomous but also responsible, and that we really wanted to ask the governor to make sure to trust the people of his state and the churches of his state,” Pickett said. “And especially with freedom of religion, that our churches could be free, safe, and responsible all at the same time.”
Pickett said the SBC of Virginia and the Baptist General Association of Virginia (BGAV) have communicated with Northam’s office since April regarding churches’ concerns.
“And we are actually holding multiple pastor forums this week through Zoom to talk to pastors, to promote conversations and questions, and think through the best, safest way to open up,” Pickett said. “Not that it has to be this week, because just because something can be done doesn’t always mean it should be done.”
BGAV Executive Director John Upton also said Northam has been responsive to churches’ needs, although directives have not always been clear.
“It’s more about clarity,” Upton said. “When these executive orders come out and directives are given, we aren’t quite sure at times how to interpret them, but he’s been good about getting more specifics to us. Our churches right now are feeling OK about what they’ve been asked to do.
“I haven’t had anybody protest to me directly. And much to [churches’] surprise, with the drive-in church or with the online service, they’ve been able to take the gospel to a much broader audience, many of them have, then they ever anticipated.”
Upton said BGAV churches are concerned with reopening safely.
“They still see this as a witness, not only caring for the congregation but caring for the community around them,” Upton said. “Most of the conversations I’ve had even today have been how can we do this safely, not how soon can we do it.”
-From Baptist Press