As religious leaders continue to grapple with appropriate COVID-related safety measures for their congregants, a federal appellate court recently clarified that no legal barrier exists under Illinois law for religious gatherings. In Cassells and the Beloved Church vs. Snyder, issued on March 8, 2021, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recognized that religious organizations may legally gather as they wish – consistent with their First Amendment religious freedom and assembly rights, and otherwise in accordance with appropriate health and safety considerations – since the prior Executive Order prohibiting religious gatherings of more than ten people is no longer in effect. This significant court ruling dovetails with Illinois’ accelerating re-opening efforts, lightened capacity restrictions, and enormous push toward widespread vaccinations.
From March 2020 to March 2021
On March 20, 2020, Illinois Governor Pritzker issued Executive Order 2020-10, prohibiting in-person gatherings of ten or more people. On March 31, 2020, the Beloved Church and its pastor received a “cease and desist” notice from the Stephenson County Sheriff, threatening penalties under the Executive Order if they continued their in-person worship services of approximately eighty people. The Church and Pastor Cassells then sued, seeking a preliminary injunction to stop legal enforcement of the ten-person gathering limit against churches based on constitutional and other grounds.
But as the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recognized in its March 8, 2021 ruling, “[m]uch has changed since the church filed this case on April 30, 2020. Most notably, Governor Pritzker issued Executive Order 2020-38 on May 29, 2020, which “encouraged” a ten-person limit on religious gatherings but “removed the mandate to that effect.” As the Court further recognized, Gov. Pritzker’s subsequent Executive Orders have “all expressly exempted religious gatherings from mandatory restrictions.” Notably, Governor Pritzker issued Executive Order 2020-38, which removed the State’s mandate limiting religious gatherings, in response to and shortly after the U.S. Department of Justice filed a “statement of interest” on behalf of Plaintiffs in another case challenging Governor Pritzker’s then-current Executive Order.
With respect to the Beloved Church’s case and based on current exemptions in Governor Pritzker’s Executive Order, the Cassells Court determined that no judicial relief is now necessary or warranted. This Illinois case is thus unlike the recent court rulings in New York, California, and elsewhere, involving Executive Orders that imposed attendance restrictions singling out religious services. In these decisions, the courts recognized that such government restrictions amount to unconstitutional infringements on First Amendment religious liberty and assembly rights – notwithstanding significant health and safety considerations involved too. As Justice Gorsuch pithily stated in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, “Even if the Constitution has taken a holiday during this pandemic, it cannot become a sabbatical.” 
Onward in 2021 and Beyond
As the Seventh Circuit determined, religious organizations are legally able to assemble in person within Illinois:
[T]he plaintiffs no longer face any live threat of enforcement – and have not for nine months. Illinois abandoned the ten-person limit on religious gatherings on May 29, 2020. Since then, the governor’s executive orders have consistently refrained from limiting the free exercise of religion. . . . Since November 2020, vaccines have been approved and are beginning to be distributed. And Illinois has chosen to scale back its restrictions. [The] most recent order repeats free exercise exemption and states that the governor going forward does “not intend to rescind these exemptions during the disaster proclamations issued due to COVID-19. . . . Illinois’ response since May 2020 shows that the prospect of such a threat being renewed is minimal.
The court further determined that the case may not be moot, however, “given the uncertainty about the future course of the pandemic.” Indeed, as the court noted, if the earlier ten-person limit on religious gatherings were again imposed, it “could well violate the Free Exercise Clause” under the U.S. Supreme Court’s strict scrutiny test applied in Roman Catholic Diocese. But no injunctive relief was warranted, based on the Illinois government’s express exemption for religious gatherings.
What’s next for churches and other houses of worship? They certainly should continue to take proper health and safety precautions appropriate to their desired activities, physical spaces, and in light of their congregants’ needs and desires. Correspondingly, ministries should remain attentive to relevant guidelines and other restrictions, such as those issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control, the Illinois Department of Public Health, and municipalities. But as the Seventh Circuit warned, religious organizations may not be targeted with greater in-person government restrictions than those applied to secular activities, similar to those struck down in Roman Catholic Diocese.
 For additional information about these other rulings, please see our blog here. These decisions illustrate the courts’ growing reluctance to continue deferring to executive branch authority over the course of this long pandemic.