As President Donald Trump on Friday called on governors to allow houses of worship to reopen this weekend, dozens of New Jersey pastors signed a message to Gov. Phil Murphy asking him to deem them “essential” and threatening a lawsuit on constitutional grounds.
And at least two South Jersey churches aren’t planning to wait for Murphy’s blessing — they’ll be open Sunday for in-person services.
Churches, synagogues, and mosques in New Jersey were never deemed “nonessential.” But houses of worship have been effectively closed to services, as gatherings of more than 10 people are prohibited as part of measures to stem the spread of the coronavirus. On Friday, Murphy announced groups of up to 25 people can gather outdoors, and last week established a framework for drive-up services, but he said restrictions on indoor gatherings will remain.
Murphy and Trump spoke about the matter Friday, a spokesperson for the governor said, and “had a productive discussion.” While the governor’s orders remain in effect, the spokesperson said the matter “continues to be under serious consideration.”
Churches have livestreamed services or facilitated small groups via videoconference, but some religious leaders say that’s not enough. On Friday, the Family Policy Alliance of New Jersey, a Christian faith-based political organization, delivered a letter to Murphy’s office on behalf of scores of Garden State pastors threatening to file a lawsuit if churches aren’t allowed to reopen by Wednesday.
The letter included a draft of a complaint arguing the governor’s executive order places an undue burden on New Jerseyans’ ability to worship. Attorney Demetrios K. Stratis said he’d file the suit in federal court late next week if Murphy doesn’t respond.
“These churches are committed to protecting the safety of their congregation and community, and other states have already demonstrated it’s very possible to reopen churches safely,” said Shawn Hyland, director of advocacy for the Family Policy Alliance of New Jersey. “We hope Gov. Murphy, at minimum, does not continue to ignore our good-faith efforts to work with him.”
Murphy’s office declined to comment on the potential litigation.
The push to reopen churches in New Jersey is part of a broader effort nationwide to allow for houses of worship, many of which have not held in-person services for months, to reopen with safety precautions. Massachusetts officials this week allowed for churches, mosques, and synagogues to reopen, but restrictions on gatherings remain in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
In brief remarks at the White House Friday, Trump pressed governors to allow churches to reopen immediately, declaring them “essential places that provide essential services" and threatening to “override the governors.” He didn’t clarify how he would do so, but Stratis said the president’s comments bolstered their argument in New Jersey.
“It’s a constitutionally protected right, and [Murphy] can’t treat us like second-class citizens,” he said.
The group said religious leaders who signed the letter are committed to implementing aggressive safety protocols, sanitation practices, and capacity limitations. Rev. Alex McCormick, the pastor at Impact Church, a nondenominational church in Burlington, signed the letter and said he and his team have created a “touchless” ministry, allowing for congregants to come to a service without touching anything but their seat.
He said virtual services worked for a time, but congregants need in-person fellowship.
“Church is essential in a time like this. People need to be with their family, and that’s what the church is: a family,” he said. “The problem I have is: You will deem liquor stores essential, but practicing your faith is not? That’s a problem for me.” (Liquor stores in New Jersey have remained open; Murphy has said the goal is to keep those in addiction from experiencing alcohol withdrawal.)
McCormick said he didn’t have firm plans to flout the governor’s shutdown orders, but it’s “not an impossibility.”
At least two South Jersey churches said they plan to hold in-person services this weekend. Bible Baptist Church in Clementon, Camden County, reopened last weekend and held in-person services again Wednesday. Rev. Andy Reese said in a statement the decision “was not made lightly but with prayer and the understanding that the church is essential for our community.”
Reese said that he believes the church should be considered an essential service, and that it is the congregation’s constitutional right to gather.
And in Berlin, Camden County, Solid Rock Baptist Church plans to reopen to in-person services Sunday. Rev. Charles Clark III said he plans to hold two services, at 10 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., and congregants will reserve seating and be seated with their “family unit.” He said the church’s 1,000-person auditorium will be at maximum 30% capacity and others will be seated in the gymnasium. All congregants will have their temperature taken, and anyone who measures higher than 100.4 degrees will be asked to leave.
Clark said he expects to be cited and believes he’s on the right side of the Constitution. But he’d prefer if Murphy would allow for churches to reopen.
“Our church members are citizens of New Jersey. They should be respected instead of being looked at as renegades,” Clark said, choking up during a phone interview. “I don’t want our people to feel like they’re lawbreakers because they are exercising their First Amendment right to religious liberty.”
Inquirer staff writers Rob Tornoe and Ellie Rushing contributed to this report.