Pastors at a pair of Chicago churches are upset after they were issued citations for continuing to hold services in violation of Illinois’ ongoing stay-at-home order.
The pastors were issued the citations by Chicago police after they held religious services with more than 10 people in attendance.
Pastor Joe Wyrostek of Metro Praise International Church has held services each of the last two weeks at his Belmont Cragin nondenominational church, but says he and his three hundred parishioners have been following rules of social distancing.
“As people come here they can be socially distant,” he said. “They come in and are seated as if they’re in a restaurant, so there’s no congregating. They’re six feet apart, just like the CDC says, and we ask them to keep masks on.”
Wyrostek says he was issued two disorderly conduct citations because of the services, and called the fines “ridiculous.”
He believes that churches should have reopened by now, and his friend and neighbor in Albany Park, Pastor Cristian Ionescu, agrees. He was also cited by the city, and has been summoned to appear in court on Aug. 12.
“If that’s what it takes to continue our mandate to serve our people, then it’s a price we are willing to pay,” Ionescu, pastor of the Elim Romanian Pentecoastal Church, said. “It’s unconstitutional, and unlawful. We believe we have been targeted by officials.”
Under Illinois’ “Restore Illinois” plan, religious services with 10 or fewer people are currently allowed, but gatherings of 50 or fewer people will not be allowed until Phase Four of the plan.
Ionescu has filed a lawsuit against Gov. J.B. Pritzker over the restrictions on religious services, and says he was scheduled to have a meeting with Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, but that the call was canceled when he asked that his attorney be allowed to participate.
“If the mayor did not cancel the conference call we had, I would give her the benefit of the doubt,” he said.
Despite the citations, both pastors have said they will have church services again on Sunday.
Dr. Willie Wilson announced Wednesday that he will pay the fines for each of the churches, saying that their First Amendment rights are being violated.
“I am going to pay the fine for these three churches, that in spite of intimidation by Pritzker and Lightfoot, dared to worship,” he said. “It is shameful that the church is discriminated against while liquor stores, marijuana dispensaries and Home Depot are treated as essential businesses.”
The Chicago Police Department said in a statement that they are asking residents to stay home and practice social distancing so that once the city begins to recover and reopen, residents can return to their religious services in a safe manner.
"Officers will continue to monitor any possible large gatherings in their districts and issue any citations where necessary," CPD said in a statement.
Chicago has temporarily banned parking alongside certain establishments as a precaution to prevent planned large gatherings from taking place, according to CPD.
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Mayor Lightfoot on Monday requested that churches wait to hold services until she slowly reopens the city in June.
"We want to do it in partnership with members of the faith community and come up with guidance that others can follow," she said.
Last week a federal judge rejected a challenge to Pritzker’s authority to impose stay-at-home orders on churches in the battle against the coronavirus.
U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman denied a request for a temporary restraining order by two churches. Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church in Chicago and Logos Baptist Ministries in Niles wanted to hold worship services while reducing seating, designating entry and exit points, offering hand sanitizer and cleaning facilities. Elim Romanian held services Sunday despite Pritzker's order.
The judge dismissed the comparison between churches and grocery stores. He asserted churches are more comparable to schools, movie theaters or concert halls, where people are also not gathering.
Pritzker has modified his order to allow the "free exercise of religion," but limited religious gatherings to no more than 10 people.
Pastor Ionescu said he'll keep his church open, even if he risks going to jail.
"Incarceration? I truly believe the mayor and the governor would not want to go there," he said. "For them it is going to be a PR disaster.”