Illinois GOP Sues Governor Over Covid-19 Restrictions and Loses

After the governor of Illinois issued an executive order banning gatherings greater than 50 people due to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, the Illinois Republican Party sued. The state GOP alleged that the order’s carve out for religious services violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment because it privileged religious services over other types of speech, including political speech. The appellate panel disagreed, finding that the order did not violate the Free Exercise Clause because it was clear that speech that accompanies religious exercise had a privileged position under the First Amendment and that the executive order permissibly accommodated religious activities.

In response to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, Governor J. B. Pritzker of Illinois has issued a series of executive orders designed to limit the virus’ opportunities to spread. The Illinois Republican Party and some of its affiliates believe that one executive order issued by Pritzker, a ban on gatherings of groups larger than 50, violated the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment because it contained a carve-out for the free exercise of religion, which allowed religious organizations to gather in groups of larger than 50 individuals.

The plaintiffs sought a permanent injunction against EO 43, assuming that such an injunction would permit them to gather in groups larger than 50, rather than reinstate the stricter ban for religion that some of the Governor’s earlier executive orders included. The district court denied the plaintiffs’ request for an injunction, and the plaintiffs appealed.

The appellate panel began by stating that the argument of the plaintiffs was essentially that religious groups were privileged over other groups in terms of limits on gatherings and that the only difference between the religious groups and others was the content of their speech. The panel found that, based on the Supreme Court’s Religion Clause cases, it was clear that speech that accompanies religious exercise has a privileged position under the First Amendment, and that EO43 permissibly accommodates religious activities.

The panel stated that, rather than being a mechanism for expressing views, as the speech, press, assembly, and petition guarantees are, the Free Exercise Clause is content-based. The panel found that the mixture of speech, music, ritual, readings, and dress that contribute to the exercise of religions the world over is greater than the sum of its parts. The panel noted that the Supreme Court made a similar point in Hosanna-Tabor when it responded to the argument that the general right to freedom of association sufficed to protect religious groups, and thus there was no need for a ministerial exception to the employment discrimination rules.

The panel then stated that the free exercise of religion covers more than the utterance of the words that are a part of it. The panel continued, stating that while the Governor was not compelled to make a special dispensation for religious activities, nothing in the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment barred him from doing so. The panel stated that, as in the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses cases, all that the Governor did was to limit to a certain degree the burden on religious exercise that EO43 imposed.

The panel stressed that this did not mean that churches were privileged over other groups for any type of gathering. The panel noted that if a church wanted to hold a picnic or a gathering for the showing of a movie, it would subject to the normal restrictions of 50 people or fewer. The panel stated that a line between religious activities and more casual gatherings surely existed, and it was important to note that EO43 did not say that all activities of religious organizations were exempt from its strictures. The panel found that because the exercise of religion involved more than simple speech, the equivalency urged by the plaintiffs between political speech and religious exercise was a false one. The panel, therefore, affirmed the decision of the district court.

You can view the court’s decision here.

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