A South Jersey church held services on Sunday in defiance of government closure orders and amid concerns that large gatherings involving loud speech and song could put participants in danger of coronavirus infection.

Parishioners of the Solid Rock Baptist Church in Berlin, Camden County, gathered for what its clergy told Gov. Phil Murphy prior to the service would “meet or exceed” safety recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We’re not looking for trouble; we’re not lawbreakers,” Pastor Charles Clark Jr. could be seen in a live internet broadcast exclaiming from the pulpit toward a crowded front pew. “We’re exercising our constitutional rights.”

Clark was one of about a dozen people who stood before the congregation, all without masks, to speak and sing over the course of the roughly hour-long service.

“By next week, there’s going to be churches opening all over the state, with permission or without permission," he said.

Face coverings were required for everyone in the pews at Solid Rock Baptist Church. Words to hymns were projected on a screen so songbooks were not needed.
YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Face coverings were required for everyone in the pews at Solid Rock Baptist Church. Words to hymns were projected on a screen so songbooks were not needed.

Murphy has begun relaxing the state’s stay-at-home order, allowing the resumption of some recreational and business activities that had been banned. But the order has mostly been kept intact, including for religious gatherings.

Spokespeople for Murphy, the state Attorney General’s Office, and Camden County prosecutors had no immediate comment. Berlin police did not respond to an email.

Later on Sunday, SS. Philip & James Parish, a Catholic church in Exton, Chester County, held services, following a Mass held Saturday evening, according to its website.

Philadelphia Archbishop Nelson Pérez had said daily and Sunday Masses weren’t expected to resume until June 5, based on Gov. Tom Wolf’s plan for relaxing Pennsylvania’s stay-at-home restrictions.

The archdiocese is preparing guidelines for its churches to help them safely resume services at that date, after which initially there will be no religious obligation to attend, diocesan spokesman Kenneth Gavin said Sunday.

The archdiocese was aware that the Mass had taken place in Exton, but “that would have been a decision made by the pastor at the local level,” Gavin said. “It is our position that something of this nature should not have happened this early.”

A message for the church was not immediately returned.

Large church gatherings have been linked to major outbreaks of the coronavirus in Germany, France, and South Korea. German officials said at least 107 people tested positive for COVID-19 after some attended services at Evangelical Christian Baptist Congregation in Frankfurt on May 10.

A study published by the National Academy of Scienceson May 13 found that one minute of loud speech could produce thousands of tiny droplets that can remain airborne for about 12 minutes. If they come from an infected person, others in the area could contract the virus.

President Trump, however, pressed governors on Friday to allow churches to reopen immediately, declaring them “essential places that provide essential services" and threatening to “override the governors,” without clarifying how he would do so.

The CDC last week published guidelines for faith-based gatherings that call on leaders to encourage staff and congregants to wash their hands frequently, wear cloth face coverings, and promote social distancing.

Solid Rock Baptist Church said in an online statement that parishioners would be protected by provisions including the projection of hymn lyrics on a screen so church songbooks need not be passed around and mandatory masks for those in the pews.

The passing of collection plates was also being skipped, but Charles Clark III, Clark Jr.'s co-pastor, said during the service that due to the health crisis the church had been receiving more in donations than usual.

Clark III began the service by addressing what he suggested was a thinner-than-usual crowd. Only 250 parishioners were being permitted into the church that was designed for a capacity of more than 1,000, church leaders had said earlier.

Families were separated by PVC piping across the church’s pews to enforce social distancing. Others were watching remotely from a gymnasium, Clark III said from the pulpit.

“We’ve just got a remnant here today, but at least we’re here,” he said. “I am glad to be back in church.”

Inquirer photographer Yong Kim contributed to this article.