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Lawyer for Lena church fires back at J.B. Pritzker over comment about jailing stay-at-home violators

By Jim Hagerty

LENA, Ill. – A Chicago lawyer who filed a civil lawsuit against Gov. J.B. Pritzker on behalf of a Lena pastor fired back at the governor Monday, claiming Pritzker threatened churchgoers with jail for defying Illinois’ stay-at-home order.

“Pritzker’s latest threat of jail for people of faith is outrageous, and we will seek immediate relief from the court of appeals to defend our clients,” said Peter Breen, an attorney with the Thomas More Society.

Breen, on behalf of Pastor Stephen Cassell and The Beloved Church, filed the lawsuit last week in federal court, seeking an exemption from the the stay-at-home order. The complaint claimed the statewide directive, first ordered by Pritzker March 20, is unconstitutional.

Judge John Z. Lee ruled against the church Saturday. The judge’s 37-page decision stated that in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the governor’s execute order limiting church services to 10 people is constitutionally sound.

In spite of that ruling, Cassell held in-person services Sunday, May, 3, for his entire church, which has around 80 members.

Pritzker commented on Lee’s ruling and the weekend services Monday during his daily press briefing.

“The pastor filed suit, and that suit failed,” Pritzker said. “And that’s because people do have the ability to worship. And we are trying to keep people safe during this time of global pandemic.”

Pritzker said state and local law enforcement officials have not been advised to arrest those who defy the order. His intention is for citizens to abide by the edict during the pandemic and for officers to ask people to disperse when crowds do form. He added that police agencies do have the power to make arrests, although he did not directly mention members of Cassell’s church.

“If people are persistently defiant, they can be put in jail,” he said. “I am not suggesting that that’s the best answer or even the first answer. But it is something that is an option for local enforcement.”

Under the extension of the stay-at-home order, churches are also permitted to have outdoor drive-through services in addition to live-streamed worship, which were never prohibited.

Breen claims the governor’s 10-person rule singles out houses of worship and that it does not apply to other businesses.

“Gov. Pritzker’s arbitrary 10-person limit applies only to churches but not to the many other businesses open in Illinois today, from liquor stores to lawyers to pet groomers,” Breen said. “Our constitution requires that churches receive at least equal treatment as any secular enterprise.”

Breen filed an appeal in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals Sunday.

Illinois’ stay-at-home order is in effect through May 30.

The Illinois Department of Public Health announced 2,341 new cases of COVID-19 Monday, including 46 additional deaths.

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