ROCKFORD — Churches are now allowed to hold gatherings for up to 10 people under the state’s modified stay-at-home order.
The change came late Thursday after a federal lawsuit was filed by a Lena church claiming the previous order violated religious rights. Gov. JB Pritzker on Thursday continued to urge churches to hold virtual services. Representatives from his office did not say whether the change was in response to the lawsuit.
The modified order says that people in Illinois can leave their homes for essential activities that include engaging "in the free exercise of religion." But along with limiting gatherings to 10 people, those gathered must abide by social distancing rules, which require people to be six feet from others in public places.
Previously, church gatherings were considered non-essential activities and were banned in the state under executive orders by Pritzker. Such rules were put in place in the state on March 21 to prevent spread of the highly contagious and potentially deadly COVID-19 respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus. The stay-at-home order has been extended through May.
A Chicago law firm filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in Rockford on behalf of Beloved Church and its pastor, the Rev. Stephen Cassell.
"We can now celebrate the fact that the ban on religious services in Illinois has been lifted (and that) every church and pastor in the Land of Lincoln can bring their flock together at least for drive-in services or small gatherings, as appropriate," Peter Breen, an attorney for the Thomas More Society, said in a news release. The society filed the lawsuit against Pritzker and Stephenson County officials, saying stay-at-home orders violate religious rights. Breen is running as a Republican for the 48th District state representative seat.
Beloved Church will hold a service Sunday and details of how that service will take place are being worked out, a spokesman for the Thomas More Society said in an email Friday. An email sent to Cassell was not immediately returned Friday.
The state is still advising churches to offer online or drive-thru services.
"The goal of the new stay-at-home order is to continue protecting the health and safety of all Illinoisans, while working with medical experts to ensure people throughout the state can continue to participate in worship services," Jordan Abudayyeh, the governor’s press secretary, said in an email.
Georgette Braun: email@example.com; @GeorgetteBraun