Potentially setting up a Sunday confrontation with defiant church leaders, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the city is prepared to enforce stay-at-home orders against houses of worship that continue holding in-person services.
Lightfoot made the comments at a Tuesday news conference when she was asked about church leaders vowing to continue holding religious services despite social distancing requirements. Previously, the mayor criticized the services as putting people at risk but said she preferred to do educational outreach.
Now, however, Lightfoot said the city will take some unspecified action to enforce the stay-at-home orders.
“We’re going to be communicating over and over again over the course of this week. I understand that people are getting anxious. But defying common sense and public health guidance only puts their congregations at physical risk,” Lightfoot said. “We don’t want to see a cluster break out because faith leaders believe they have only one way of showing their reverence to the God that they worship. The Bible tells us, where two or more are gathered in my name, there will I be also. There’s lots of ways in which we show our devotion to our faith that don’t include physically putting people at risk.”
She added: “We’re going to continue to have that discussion but, if necessary, we are going to take action to make sure there is compliance to the stay-at-home orders.”
The dispute kicked off after Metro Praise International Church on the Northwest Side opened its doors for in-person services in an act church officials described as “passive resistance” to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s ongoing stay-at-home order.
That defiance led Lightfoot to tweet Monday morning, “It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’re doing. When you gather like this, you are putting yourself and your loved ones in serious danger.”
Another church, Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church, hosted Sunday services in Albany Park despite the stay-at-home order.
At a Monday afternoon news conference, Lightfoot said she spoke with the pastor of Elim Romanian and had a “very pleasant” talk with him. She said she hoped to do more outreach but expressed reluctance to take harsher action.
But in interviews with the Tribune on Monday, the leaders of those churches criticized Lightfoot and Pritzker.
Cristian Ionescu, the pastor at Elim Romanian, called his church’s first in-person service in two months an “extraordinary success” and said the church took extreme measures to ensure all participants were safe.
Ionescu said it was offensive that politicians didn’t consult with religious leaders when developing a statewide and citywide plan for reopening.
“They should cooperate with us, not dictate to us,” he said. “I take offense that they think they care more about our people than us.”
Joe Wyrostek, pastor of Metro Praise International Church, shared Ionescu’s frustration.
“I just feel like we were put at the back of the bus,” he said, referring to religious leaders. “We were not in any of the discussions.”
Wyrostek said he decided to resume church services after seeing Pritzker’s “cautious” reopening plan, which wouldn’t allow for gatherings of more than 50 people until the fifth and final phase.
“We have to stand up for ourselves at some point,” Wyrostek said. “We’ve lost trust in what they’re doing. We have to peacefully resist and see where it goes.”
Churches pose a thorny enforcement problem due to potential First Amendment questions and a political one, too, as no elected official wants to cross local ministers.
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