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Northwest Illinois Church's Lawsuit Against Stay-At-Home Order Accuses Gov. JB Pritzker Of 'Illegal And Discriminatory Hostility To Religious Practice'

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Already facing two challenges to his extended stay-at-home order in state courts, Gov. Pritzker is also defending himself against a federal lawsuit filed by the pastor of a northwest Illinois church, who says the mandate "flagrantly violated the fundamental religious liberties of Illinoisans."

Steve Cassell, pastor of Beloved Church in Lena, about 40 miles west of Rockford, noted in his federal lawsuit that the governor's stay-at-home order did not deem churches and other houses of worship to be "essential" businesses allowed to remain open, while deeming liquor stores, lawyers, and landscapers as essential.

"The churches and pastors of Illinois are no less 'essential' than its liquor stores to the health and well-being of its residents. Defendants have thus intentionally denigrated Illinois churches and pastors and people of faith by relegating them to second-class citizenship," the lawsuit states.

The complaint also accuses Pritzker of showing an "illegal and discriminatory hostility to religious practice, churches, and people of faith" during the pandemic.

"He has flagrantly violated the fundamental religious liberties of Illinoisans, in violation of the First Amendment's Free Exercise clause and parallel provisions of the Illinois Constitution and statute," the lawsuit states.

Filed by the Thomas More Society, a conservative public interest law firm, the lawsuit claims Stephenson County Sheriff David Snyders' office delivered Cassell cease-and-desist order on March 31, requiring the church to comply with the governor's original stay-at-home order. The lawsuit says Cassell and Beloved Church plan to hold worship services on Sunday, after the extended stay-at-home order goes into effect.

At his daily coronavirus briefing, Pritzker called Cassell's lawsuit an "outlier" among religious leaders in Illinois, and he urged churches to "put the health and safety of their congregants first."

"Most faith leaders have found new ways to connect with their parishioners on Zoom conferencing, holding services by teleconference, and I would encourage people to continue to do that," he said.

The governor said, if even one person in a congregation were to attend in-person services while infected with the virus, everyone else in the church would be at risk of catching the disease.

Cassell's lawsuit seeks a court order prohibiting Pritzker from extending the stay-at-home order, including an injunction barring any enforcement of the mandate.

The governor is facing two other lawsuits challenging his authority to enforce that statewide stay-at-home order. Illinois State Rep. Darren Bailey (R-Xenia) won a ruling from a downstate judge this week, exempting him from the governor's extension of the stay-at-home order through May 30, but Pritzker is asking the Illinois Supreme Court to overturn that ruling.

State Rep. John Cabello (R-Machesney Park) also has filed a separate lawsuit in Winnebago County, seeking to lift the order for everyone in the state. A hearing on that suit is scheduled for Tuesday.

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