Stephen Cassell, the pastor of a tiny church in the tiny Illinois farming town of Lena has become the focal point of resistance to Governor J.B. Pritzker’s iron control over places of worship. Cassell held services at the Beloved Church despite threats from Pritzker to have him and his parishioners arrested or fined.
Cassell sued the governor for his policy of not allowing church services — a policy he amended on May 1 to allow for services with 10 or fewer worshippers maintaining social distancing guidelines. A judge threw out the suit on Monday but on Tuesday Cassell said he would defy the order again, although the pastor refused to say if his flock would be in the sanctuary as they were last Sunday.
Cassell is a reluctant revolutionary. And he’s concerned about the hate being directed against him.
But Cassell declined to specify whether his flock would be in the sanctuary of the Beloved Church in the tiny farm village of Lena like they were last Sunday. He said they got bomb and death threats after the church reopened for the first time since March 31. He said they held online services in the interim.
“I don’t believe there is such a thing as an online church,” Cassell said. “The definition of a church is a gathering. We had to forgo one of the core values of what we are.”
Pritzker all but accused Cassell of wanting people to die. Cassell hit back at that.
“I did not put anybody’s safety at risk and just to assume it or to outright say it like the governor just shows downright animosity to all things church and all things God,” he told the [Alton] Daily News.
Religious leaders have increasingly pushed back on stay-at-home orders and accused governors who imposed them of infringing on religious liberties. Earlier this week, the Justice Department sided with a Chincoteague, Va., church’s lawsuit against Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D) order, which also restricts religious services to 10 people.
“Permitting similar opportunities for in-person gatherings of more than 10 individuals, while at the same time prohibiting churches from gathering in groups of more than 10 — even with social distancing measures and other precautions — has impermissibly interfered with the church’s free exercise of religion,” the Justice Department said in the filing.
Beloved Church in Lena is appealing a federal judge's ruling upholding Gov. JB Pritzker's stay-at-home order. https://t.co/3pddhM7t5j
— Journal Standard (@journalstandard) May 4, 2020
The Constitution doesn’t say, “You can worship any way you wish — but no more than 10 people.” It says governors are violating Americans’ constitutional rights by interfering with religious expression.
The courts have a different view, but again, judges have a very limited understanding of people of faith. The judge in Cassell’s suit, John Lee, defended the unconstitutional restriction. NBC News:
In his ruling, Lee noted that limiting gatherings to 10 people or going online are “imperfect substitutes for an in-person service where all eighty members of Beloved Church can stand together, side-by-side, to sing, pray, and engage in communal fellowship.”
“Still, given the continuing threat posed by COVID-19, the Order preserves relatively robust avenues for praise, prayer and fellowship and passes constitutional muster,” the judge wrote.
What the hell does “relatively robust” mean? It’s the courts deciding what constitutes “robust” worship, not the worshippers.
Police in Lena are apparently under orders not to interfere but, like last weekend, they will write down the license plates of cars in the parking lot and count heads during the service. Cassell’s reckoning will come later when the governor lowers the boom on him.