ALBANY PARK — Churches, mosques and synagogues can resume in-person worship if they choose after Gov. JB Pritzker signaled he won’t prevent it when the current phase of his stay at home order ends Friday.
Still, the state says it strongly recommends faith services be held remotely to protect people from coronavirus.
The shift comes as Pritzker faces multiple lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of his order, including an emergency appeal to the Supreme Court this week. That case involved Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church in Albany Park and a church in suburban Niles.
“I don’t care who gets credit for this victory,” said Cristian Ionescu, a religious leader at Elim Romanian. “All I care about is tending to the church I’ve been entrusted by the Lord.”
The churches sued Pritzker earlier this month, seeking to invalidate his stay at home order. They argued Pritzker’s order banning gatherings of more than 10 people — effectively sidelining in-person religious services — unfairly targeted houses of worship.
Lower courts threw out the suit, siding with Pritzker and saying the restraints were necessary to prevent the spread of coronavirus. The churches appealed to the Supreme Court, seeking permission to host services in time for the Christian holy day of Pentecost this Sunday.
Elim Romanian and other area churches have also hosted regular Sunday services in defiance of state order, though they’ve been fined and cited by the city for violating the stay at home order.
But apparently, court intervention is no longer necessary.
In response to the suit, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul said Pritzker will no longer mandate churches restrict in-person gatherings to fewer than 10 people. Instead, he will urge churches to follow new guidance issued Thursday from the Illinois Department of Public Health, which still recommends remote and drive-in worship over in-person meetings.
The best option for in-person services, officials said, is outdoor congregating with social distancing and other precautions — with the caveat any such gathering still involves a much higher risk of disease transmission.
“Taking into account both the ongoing threat of COVID-19 and the state’s success in limiting the spread of the virus, the governor announced today, May 28, 2020, that he will not be renewing the 10-person limit on religious gatherings, which expires on May 29, or imposing other requirements,” the court filing states.
“Per the governor’s announcement today, religious organizations are no longer subject to any of the gathering restrictions in any phase.”
It’s not immediately clear what this means in the city, as gatherings of 10 or more remain prohibited throughout Phase 3, which the city will enter Wednesday. Block Club has reached out to Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office for comment.
The new public health guidelines offer multiple options for worshippers even as state officials insist they do not want people meeting in person.
“Faith communities also cherish fellowship,” the guidance states. “The desire for the human connection of worshipping together, particularly during a time of crisis, is understandable. However, gatherings of any size pose a risk of COVID-19 transmission. For places of worship that choose to hold in-person activities, the safest course of action is to congregate outdoors and/or in small groups of less than 10 people.”
For outdoor worship, the guidelines say congregants should:
- Sit among people with whom they live and 6 feet apart from other groups and individuals.
- Wear face masks.
- Avoid singing and group recitation, “which significantly increases the risk of transmission of the virus by projecting respiratory droplets.” Singers should stay 10 feet away from other congregants and wear masks.
For indoor worship, officials strongly recommend keeping groups under 10 people. Churches should consider multiple small services with small groups, limiting 10-person gatherings to special events like weddings and funerals and limiting in-person gatherings to private prayer.
Churches should make sure congregants only sit with the people in their household and wear face coverings, according to the guidelines. Bathrooms need to be thoroughly cleaned and have soap and hand sanitizer available.
State officials also recommend churches limit attendance to 25 percent of their normal capacity or no more than 100 people, whichever is less. Churches also should:
- Increase capacity gradually, instead of all at once.
- Consider a reservation system to limit capacity.
- Assign seating to ensure social distancing.
- Consider small services for special groups, such as senior citizens, people with health problems and families with small children.
- Develop a social distancing plan that outlines where and when people will enter and exit and where they will sit.
Ionescu said Thursday night he plans to implement the new safety guidelines in addition to the safety measures he already had in place for in-person worship. He has provided his congregants with masks, gloves and hand sanitizer, put caution tape on the pews to ensure social distancing and has had his church professionally cleaned.
Ionescu has presided over multiple in-person services this month, limiting attendance to 110 people, though that still exceeds the recommended capacity limits in the new guidelines.
Despite the loosened restrictions, attorneys for the churches appear primed to continue litigation in hopes a court will find Pritzker overstepped his authority.
“This is a complete victory in the near term,” officials for the Liberty Counsel, which represented the churches, said in a blog post. “However, unless and until there is a judicial declaration that Governor Pritzker has acted unconstitutionally thus far, there is nothing keeping him from changing his mind again, whether in this crisis or any future crisis.”
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