(Recasting to add political context, background; adds bylines)
WASHINGTON, May 22 (Reuters) - The Trump administration on Friday weighed in on a lawsuit brought against Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker’s coronavirus stay-at-home orders, with a rare federal court filing in support of the legal challenge he faces over his emergency powers.
The U.S. Justice Department’s filing in Illinois marked another escalation by the administration in confronting state governors it sees as going too far with restrictions meant to quell the coronavirus pandemic.
The Justice Department asserted that Pritzker, a Democrat, acted improperly when he removed the case in question from state court, where it was filed by Republican state Representative Darren Bailey, to a federal court.
A similar lawsuit filed in state court by Republican legislators against Democratic Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers and his top public health officer led to a state Supreme Court ruling last week invalidating stay-at-home orders there.
The Justice Department said it was intervening under an edict issued by Attorney General William Barr in late April directing his civil rights division to review the legitimacy of state and local government policies related to the coronavirus pandemic.
On Tuesday, the Justice Department sent a letter to California Governor Gavin Newsom, also a Democrat, saying his lockdown orders discriminated against religious freedom by prohibiting indoor services while allowing some workplaces, including film studios, to reopen.
A similar letter on Friday to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer questioned whether their local restrictions “may be an arbitrary and heavy-handed approach” to stay-at-home requirements.
Both letters and the Illinois federal court filing were signed by Eric Dreiband, assistant U.S. attorney general for the Justice Department’s civil rights division.
Pritzker’s lockdown order, like California’s, bars indoor gatherings at places of worship, but has already survived federal court challenges brought on religious grounds.
And in removing Bailey’s lawsuit from state court, Pritzker asserted his case also belonged in federal court because Bailey was alleging a violation of rights under the U.S. Constitution.
Bailey has countered that he is challenging Pritzker’s stay-at-home orders not on the basis of constitutional issues but because, he claims, they exceed the governor’s emergency powers.
The Justice Department’s statement of interest likewise asserts the dispute rightfully belongs in Illinois state court.
“The federal government has an interest in preventing the limited resources of the federal courts from being drawn into state-law disputes that lie outside of their jurisdiction,” it said.
President Donald Trump, a Republican who had staked his Nov. 3 re-election bid to the once-robust U.S. economy, has repeatedly agitated for a swift reopening of business activity brought to a virtual standstill by coronavirus lockdowns.
At the White House on Friday, he urged states to allow for the reopening of places of worship over the Memorial Holiday weekend and warned he would override governors who do not. (Reporting by Mark Hosenball in Washington, additional reporting by Karen Pierog in Chicago and Nate Raymond in Boston; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Chris Reese, Grant McCool & Shri Navaratnam)
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