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Judge Rejects Illinois GOP Bid For Exemption From Pritzker's Public Gathering Limit; 'The Risks In Doing So Are Too Great'

CHICAGO (CBS) -- A federal judge has denied the Illinois Republican Party's request to exempt them from Gov. J.B. Pritzker's ban on public gatherings of more than 50 people, ruling "the risks in doing so are too great" due to the continued threat of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last month, the Illinois GOP and three other local Republican groups filed a lawsuit arguing the restrictions of the governor's reopening plan violate their constitutional rights, and seeking a court order allowing them to hold political events without any capacity limits in the months ahead of the November elections.

On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Sara Ellis ruled that the GOP's rights were being violated, ruling the exemption they were seeking "would pose serious risks to public health."

"The current state of our nation demands that we sacrifice the benefits of in-person interactions for the greater good," Ellis wrote in a 21-page ruling. "Plaintiffs ask that they be allowed to gather—without limitation—despite the advice of medical experts and the current rise in infections. The risks in doing so are too great. The Court acknowledges that Plaintiffs' interest in gathering as a political party is important, especially leading up to an election. But this interest does not outweigh the Governor's interest in protecting the health of Illinois' residents during this unprecedented public health crisis."

The judge also noted the GOP can still engage in a number of political activities, such as phone banks, virtual strategy meetings, and fundraisers and other events with up to 50 people.

Ellis also ruled that granting the Illinois Republican Party an exemption from the public gathering limits "would open the floodgates to challenges from other groups that find in-person gatherings most effective."

"It would also require that the Court turn a blind eye to the increase in infections across a high majority of states, which as of July 1, 2020 includes Illinois," she wrote.

The Illinois GOP had criticized Pritzker for not enforcing the limit on public gatherings when protesters assemble in the hundreds and even thousands, while forcing the party to hold its 2020 convention virtually. They also noted the governor's restrictions on public gatherings allowed an exemption for religious groups.

While Ellis said exempting religious gatherings from the limit "creates a content-based restriction," she noted the governor provided that exemption to address "unique protections accorded to religion" in state and federal laws.

"The Governor concluded that the least restrictive means by which to protect this constitutional right was to permit free religious exercise but encourage individuals who engage in such practices to adhere to public health guidelines. The Court finds that this is indeed the least restrictive means by which to accomplish both aims," she wrote.

The GOP has filed notice they plan to appeal Ellis' ruling, and asked her to grant them a temporary injunction allowing them to hold a July 4th fireworks event while they take their case to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but Ellis turned them down.

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