67 New Jersey pastors announced on Friday that they are filing a lawsuit against Gov. Phil Murphy and the state government unless they are allowed to reopen their church doors without restrictions by Wednesday.
“We take the safety of our parishioners very seriously,” said Pastor Alex McCormick of Impact Church. “Why would you say people can go to Lowe’s, Home Depot, and the liquor store, but not church?”
The group is represented by attorney Demetrios Stratis, who said this weekend that Gov. Murphy is treading on dangerous constitutional ground.
“We can debate whether Gov. Murphy should dictate business closures, but the First Amendment protection of religious liberty is not debatable. No one, including our governor, can dictate to churches and their congregants when and how they choose to worship,” said Stratis.
According to Murphy’s office, there are currently no plans to change the executive orders forbidding large indoor gatherings.
While New Jersey has not specifically singled out houses of worship for closure during the coronavirus shutdown, the state-mandated limitations – no more than 10 people gathered indoors at a time – make it all but impossible for churches to reopen for Sunday services. Some churches have made do with virtual sermons, others have held services for parishioners in the parking lots, but both pastors and congregants say that these measures should be put in the past.
“We get asked about faith all the time, rightfully by the way, across all faiths,” Murphy acknowledged on Wednesday.
But members of the Family Policy Alliance, which helped organize the pastors currently threatening to sue the state, say that lip service from the governor is not enough.
“Many states across America, including most recently Massachusetts, acknowledge that houses of worship can safely practice their faith with more than 10 people present,” said the group. “The pastors continue to pray for the Governor as they keep all their options on the table, including legal, to defend their religious rights and to be treated equally under the Constitution.”
There are, of course, several examples throughout the country of churches opening, and then quickly closing again, because the virus began spreading through the congregation. We’re not here to say whether or not it is a good idea to go back to a packed church at this time; the answer will change depending on the state, the city, the county, and the individual making the decision to go or not. What we will say, however, is that it’s no longer tenable for these government leaders to take the choice away from their constituents. That’s the part that needs to end.