Judge denies GOP request to allow large political gatherings
Says granting restraining order ‘would pose serious risks to public health’
By JERRY NOWICKI
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD — A federal judge on Thursday denied a request for a temporary restraining order that would have allowed Illinois Republican Party groups to host large fundraising events.
In the lawsuit, the state GOP argued that Gov. JB Pritzker’s 50-person cap on gathering sizes — which was a 10-person cap when the lawsuit was filed — does not apply to religious organizations, and the governor “declined to enforce” his order against protesters demanding an end to systemic racism.
The GOP — along with the Will County Republican Central Committee, Schaumburg Township Republican Organization and Northwest Side GOP Club — argued that applying those exemptions to protestors and religious institutions but not to political parties created an “unconstitutional content-based restriction on speech,” according to a court document.
That, the Republicans claimed, was a violation of their First and 14th Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution, which grant freedoms of speech and demonstration, as well as equal protections under the law.
U.S. District Court Judge Sara L. Ellis, of the Northern District of Illinois’ Eastern Division, denied the request for a temporary order that would allow the GOP to resume large gatherings, stating that granting the relief “would pose serious risks to public health.”
“The number of COVID-19 infections continues to rise across the United States, which has led some states to recently impose greater restrictions on gatherings and activities,” Ellis wrote in her ruling. “COVID-19 is highly contagious and continues to spread, requiring public officials to constantly evaluate the best method by which to protect residents’ safety against the economy and a myriad of other concerns.”
Illinois GOP Chairman Tim Schneider said lawyers were already working on an appeal.
"We are disappointed with today's results and obviously disagree with the ruling,” Schneider said in a statement. “Our fight to secure our First Amendment right is not over, however. Our lawyers have immediately begun the process for appealing the decision."
In its June 15 court filing, the GOP argued political parties “are for political expression what churches are for religious expression: the corporate manifestation of speech and interaction within a community of shared belief.”
“Yet, unlike churches, political parties are barred from gathering in groups greater than 10 (now 50) under the governor’s executive order,” the party continued. “And unlike protestors against police brutality, they have not been given an exemption based on his sympathy, recognition, and participation.”
Ellis, however, argued that Pritzker’s order “involves reasonable measures intended to protect public health while preserving avenues for First Amendment activities.”
“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,” she wrote. “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 wrote that many political activities are still allowed, such as “phone banks, virtual strategy meetings, and, as of Friday, June 26, gatherings like fundraisers and meet-and-greet coffees that do not exceed 50 people.”
Moreover, allowing the GOP to hold mass gatherings would “open the floodgates to challenges from other groups that find in-person gatherings most effective,” she wrote, agreeing with one of the state’s arguments.
“An injunction that allows plaintiffs to gather in large groups so that they can engage in more effective speech is simply not in the public interest. Such relief would expand beyond any gatherings and negatively impact non-parties by increasing their risk of exposure. Thus, the harms tilt significantly in the governor’s favor as he seeks to prevent the spread of this virulent virus,” she concluded.
Ellis said the GOP failed to prove the state selectively chose not to enforce its order against protestors. The governor also did not take action against Reopen Illinois protestors during the stay-at-home order, she pointed out.
“Plaintiffs have failed to point to a single instance in which they, or anyone similarly situated, protested with political messages and state officials enforced the order against them because of this content,” she wrote. “Thus, the court has no basis by which to evaluate whether the governor has selectively enforced the order.”
The judge did, however, agree that the government engaged in “content-based discrimination” by allowing churches to gather.
“When a gathering is still allowed based on the speech involved, the government has engaged in content-based discrimination. The court finds that by exempting free exercise of religion from the gathering limit, the order creates a content-based restriction,” she wrote.
An appeal had not been filed Thursday afternoon, and the full case is still pending in Ellis’ court.
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.