ALBANY PARK — A federal judge rejected a bid from area churches –including one in Albany Park — to host church services during the state’s stay-at-home order.
Elim Romanian Pentecostal at 4850 N. Bernard St. is among those that sued Gov. JB Pritzker to try to invalidate his state ruling banning large gatherings, effectively sidelining church services.
U.S. District Judge Robert W. Gettleman threw out the complaint Wednesday, saying the churches did not establish that the state’s restrictions unfairly target religious services or gatherings.
Pritzker’s order “has nothing to do with suppressing religion and everything to do with reducing infections and saving lives,” Gettleman wrote in his ruling.
Mathew Staver, an attorney representing the churches, said Wednesday he will appeal that ruling on the grounds it’s still unconstitutional.
Elim Romanian hosted a morning and evening service on Sunday. Both were live streamed on Facebook. Pastor Cristian Ionescu said about 110 people attended each service and he intends to hold services again this weekend.
In response, both Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Ald. Rossana Rodriguez, 33rd, said they planned to reach out to Ionescu to urge him to follow the state’s restrictions.
According to Ionescu, Lightfoot canceled a planned meeting on Tuesday after he sent her a letter with several questions and said he wanted his lawyer present.
“I guess she felt cornered because I wasn’t going to allow it to just be a meeting where she educates me into compliance,” Ionescu said. “I think she was also worried her answers in that meeting could be used in a court of law against her.”
The letter included questions like whether any pastors were consulted on how to apply these stay at home rules to churches and if there were additional standards of safety and sanitation practices the church could implement to allow it to be a model for other religious services.
“We put these measures in places, both the governor’s stay at home order and the things we’ve done here locally, because we know that gathering in congregate settings without appropriate protocols and social distancing is exactly the breeding ground for the virus,” Lightfoot said at a press conference this week.
Ionescu remained defiant that his church can safely host religious services during the pandemic. He previously told Block Club he had his church sanitized before Sunday’s services and had everyone’s temperature checked at the entrance. He also provided his congregants with masks, gloves and hand sanitizer, and put caution tape on the pews to ensure social distancing.
“During both services the pastor also dismissed people row by row and made sure they didn’t congregate on their way out,” Staver said.
Another church in Belmont Cragin also defied the stay at home order to host a service Sunday. That pastor didn’t require people to wear masks or stand at least 6 feet apart and is now facing protests by neighbors.
“I want to emphasize this: I don’t want to see another church meeting without proper precautions. I am disturbed to see what happened in Belmont Cragin,” Ionescu said. “But I’m not in a position to accuse a fellow pastor of anything because as far as the government is concerned — even with the precautions I put in place — I’m being put in the same boat as him even though I would never do anyting like that.”
Later Wednesday, Metro Praise International in Belmont Cragin announced it would urge social distancing and recommend that congregants wear masks at its planned Sunday services, following the lead of Elin Pentecostal.
“We hope that people on both sides will see that we at MPI are showing the true spirit of unity to work with the city so that we will not be fined, imprisoned or brought to court,” church leaders said in a Facebook post.
Gettleman was not swayed by the argument there is a safe way to congregate at this time.
He noted an example from Washington State, in which a church choir practiced social distancing and used hand sanitizer when they gathered for a rehearsal. Still, 45 of the 60 members contracted COVID-19; two of them died.
“Large gatherings magnify the risk of contagion even when participants practice preventative measures as plaintiffs claim they are prepared to do,” Gettleman wrote.
Ionescu wants the mayor and governor to work with him to standardize guidelines for places of worship to open so what happened in Belmont Cragin isn’t repeated.
“What happened in Belmont Cragin is what you get when you force people underground due to restricting their ability to worship,” he said. “The longer you deny gathering and worshiping in a safe environment the higher the risk they’ll do it anyway. What happens when more churches defy the order? It’s going to overwhelm the city’s ability to address them all.”
Ald. Rodriguez welcomed the judge’s ruling and said she’s in conversation with the mayor on how to address this Sunday’s planned service at Ionescu’s church.
“I can’t say more yet but both myself and the mayor are taking this very seriously,” she said. “I told the pastor we need to find a solution but hosting in-person services right now isn’t being kind to our neighbors.”
Rodriguez explained to Ionescu that Albany Park hasn’t become a hotspot like other neighborhoods in the city because most people in her ward are adhering to the stay at home order.
“We need to keep following the advice of medical experts because it’s making a difference in not just this ward but for Chicago compared to other cities that have been hit harder,” Rodriguez said. “If Ionescu keeps hosting in-person services like this, it’s going to send a message to other churches to defy the order, and that doesn’t seem like a good idea at this point.”
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