7th Circuit won’t revive Illinois churches’ COVID suit

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has refused to revive a lawsuit filed by two churches requesting an injunction forbidding Illinois’ governor from reinstating capacity limits on religious services in the future like he did at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church and Logos Baptist Ministries sued Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker after he issued an executive order limiting the number of persons who could attend religious services to 10 in 2020.

The United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, denied the churches’ motion for a preliminary injunction, and by the time the appeal was argued in June 2020, the governor had rescinded the order and there were no longer capacity limits.

In the first appeal, the 7th Circuit held that the possibility of restoring the original order should the pandemic become more serious meant the case was not moot, but the order didn’t violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

In response, the plaintiffs asked the district court to issue a permanent injunction notwithstanding the 7th Circuit’s decision. The district court didn’t reach the merits, ruling instead the litigation was moot. The churches then filed a second appeal.

The 7th Circuit called the district court’s decision “questionable” because it was inconsistent with its opinion, “plus the further reason that the Governor continues to say that orders may be amended as the pandemic continues. “

“Still, it does not follow that plaintiffs are entitled to an injunction,” the 7th Circuit continued. “More than 19 months have passed since they were last subject to an attendance limit, and the Governor has not suggested that another is likely. A legal conclusion that a rescinded order violated the Constitution would not entitle anyone to an injunction.”

The appellate court also said it had already addressed the subject in Cassell v. Snyders, 880 F.3d 539 (7th Cir. 2021), where it observed that the district court didn’t abuse its discretion in turning down plaintiffs’ request for injunctive relief.

Additionally, the 7th Circuit ruled the damages requested in the complaint don’t keep the case alive, citing Will v. Michigan Department of State Police, 481 U.S. 58 (1989), because the only defendant is the governor.

“And if we were to ignore the ‘official capacity’ language that the complaints used to describe Governor Pritzker’s status, the churches still could not obtain damages, because the Governor would be entitled to qualified immunity.”

Closing, the 7th Circuit said, “if Illinois imposes an objectionable order in response to any new developments in the pandemic, the churches may file a new suit. But this suit is over.”

The case is Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church and Logos Baptist Ministries v. Jay Robert Pritzker, in his official capacity as Governor of Illinois, 21-2523.

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