More than two dozen New Jersey churches on Friday sued Gov. Phil Murphy over his administration’s closure orders that halted in-person services in houses of worship for more than two months.
The churches, all Christian, filed a federal lawsuit claiming Murphy is violating their First Amendment right to religious exercise by restricting houses of worship from holding in-person services. While New Jersey’s churches were never deemed “nonessential,” they were subject to a prohibition on indoor gatherings of more than 10 people, a measure put in place to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
Murphy’s office declined to comment on the litigation, but he did announce Friday that he expects to be able to raise the limit on indoor gatherings so religious services can restart by the weekend of June 12.
“Our houses of worship are cornerstones of our communities,” Murphy said Friday. “We want these institutions to be strong and safe.”
Attorney Demetrios K. Stratis said Murphy’s news conference did not “moot our issues.” He argued in court papers that churches must be deemed essential so any “future governmental action” doesn’t restrict religious exercise under the First Amendment. The group also argued churches would strictly follow safety guidelines and social-distancing procedures outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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. Last week, President Donald Trump called on governors to allow houses of worship to reopen, and the president and Murphy spoke about the matter via phone, according to Murphy’s office.
Late Friday, the Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, rejected a California Pentecostal church’s challenge of the state’s coronavirus-related restrictions on worship services, finding they did not discriminate against religious institutions and their First Amendment rights. Chief Justice John Roberts voted with the court’s four liberals.
At least two South Jersey churches opened their doors to in-person services last week despite Murphy’s crowd-size limitations remaining in place.
“We’re not looking for trouble; we’re not lawbreakers,” Pastor Charles Clark Jr. of the Solid Rock Baptist Church in Berlin, Camden County, said last Sunday. “We’re exercising our constitutional rights.”
Staff writer Ellie Silverman contributed to this article.