CHICAGO—On May 10, Pastor Cristian Ionescu opened his Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church in Chicago for the first time in two months.
He welcomed around 100 congregants—10 times the number allowed by his governor, J.B. Pritzker.
The entire building was sanitized by a professional company ahead of opening, Ionescu told The Epoch Times. Hand sanitizers, masks, and gloves were provided at the reception desk.
Congregants sat three seats away from each other, and every other row was empty.
“You are at Elim, and this is the place where you can refresh your spirit,” Ionescu told his congregants in his opening remarks. They heard sermons, sang, and prayed together. Many wept.
Ionescu and five Romanian pastors had publicly declared ahead of time that they would reopen on May 10.
They announced they would follow the same safety measures as essential businesses, and no longer adhere to the 10-person limit set by Pritzker.
They joined a growing number of churches in Illinois and across the country that are defying stay-at-home orders, which they consider unconstitutional.
Pastor Stephan Cassell of Beloved Church told The Epoch Times that he is aware of 86 churches that held in-person services on May 10. It wasn’t clear how many of those churches hosted more than 10 people.
At Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church, the morning service concluded without any disruptions from local law enforcement.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot threatened during a May 2 press conference that if people knowingly violate stay-at-home orders, “we will take you to jail.”
The Chicago Police Department issued more than 4,600 dispersal orders and arrested 17 in enforcing stay-at-home orders in April.
“If the police did show up, I would submit to them peacefully,” Ionescu told The Epoch Times.
The mayor’s threat of arrest reminds Ionescu of communist Romania, he said. While growing up there, he saw pastors thrown into jail as criminals for preaching and gathering in ways forbidden by the government.
When he heard Lightfoot’s threat, “that gave me shivers,” he told The Epoch Times.
Ionescu escaped to the United States as a religious refugee in 1987 and found a home in Chicago, where the promise of freedom was faithfully fulfilled, he said, until Pritzker ordered pastors to close their doors in March.
On April 30, in Pritzker’s updated stay-at-home order, he acknowledged for the first time that religious activity is “essential.”
But he still limited the number of congregants at church to 10. Other businesses permitted to stay open, including grocers, liquor stores, and marijuana dispensaries, have no such limitations.
Could Take a Year
According to Pritzker’s newly released plan to reopen the state, churches like Elim will not be able to have larger gatherings until phase five, at which point 50-plus people will be allowed to gather.
Phase five will begin when a vaccine is developed, a treatment option is readily available, or there are no new cases of COVID-19 over a sustained period.
Pritzker said it could take a year for Illinois to reach phase five.
Pastors Take It to Court
“The Constitution and the rights enshrined therein are not suspended during a pandemic, and neither is our religion.”
Ionescu and another Romanian pastor filed a lawsuit on May 8 to seek exemption from the 10-person limit.
In lawsuits mounted by churches across the nation, judges will decide if restrictions on churches go too far, according to the Constitution, or if they are warranted amid the pandemic.
Cassell filed a lawsuit asking that stay-at-home orders be restrained to allow his church to resume service on May 3. Cassell was the first pastor in Illinois to legally challenge Pritzker’s stay-at-home orders.
Federal Judge John Lee denied the request, though Cassell is appealing the decision.
Lee ruled the current limits on churches in Illinois constitutional because of the compelling interest to save people’s lives. He said that churches pose a greater risk of spreading COVID-19 than other essential businesses.
For instance, he noted that shoppers typically enter and leave stores quickly without directly engaging much with others, whereas religious services involve sustained interactions between many people.
He said an appropriate comparison should be drawn between churches and schools, and the latter are closed.
Matthew Staver is a constitutional attorney and the founder of Liberty Counsel, which represents Ionescu in his lawsuit. Staver objects to Lee’s argument in the Cassell case.
“The virus doesn’t prefer churches over liquor stores, or shopping malls, or big box centers, or abortion clinics,” he told The Epoch Times. “So that analogy is just completely baseless and it doesn’t have any constitutional foundation either.”
Ionescu’s May 10 service limited interactions between congregants.
Ionescu said he took great care to make sure every congregant stayed in a “six-foot bubble.”
In the lawsuit, Ionescu’s attorneys cite the 1972 United States v. Bell case.
That case hinged on whether the threat of plane hijackers justifies the broad search of all passengers solely at the discretion of police officers’ “trained intuition.”
The court decided the searches were an unjustified infringement on personal liberties.
Judge Walter Mansfield’s opinion on the case stated: “If the danger to the public posed by the current wave of hijackings were held to constitute adequate ground for such a broad expansion of police power, the sharp increase in the rate of serious crimes in our major cities could equally be used to justify similar searches of persons or homes in high crime areas based solely upon the ‘trained intuition’ of the police.
“With the door thus opened, a serious abuse of individual rights would almost inevitably follow.”
Ionescu said, “I’m not protesting against the good intentions to save people’s lives during a pandemic.”
He said, however, that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”