Pastors Sue Governor Murphy for Not Deeming Churches Essential and Preventing Them from Immediately Reopening
Lawsuit comes after Governor Murphy failed to respond to two letters asking to responsibly reopen churches
TRENTON, New Jersey – Today, 27 churches sued New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, in District Court, over his failure to deem churches as essential, which prohibits them from reopening, even under CDC guidelines. The complaint argues Governor Murphy is unconstitutionally preventing the free exercise of faith of hundreds of thousands of New Jersey citizens by keeping church doors forcibly closed.
As of this week, New Jersey church doors have been closed for more than nine weeks. While Governor Murphy had initially named a variety of other entities in his reopening plan – including restaurants and entertainment – he had not included churches with the exception of “drive-in” services, where congregants must remain in their vehicles with doors and windows closed or with vehicles six feet apart, a requirement that effectively prohibits many worshipers from gathering. Though today, Governor Murphy projected lifting the current restrictions on indoor religious services on Friday, June 12, he failed to define these limits.
The lawsuit comes after Governor Murphy failed to respond to two separate letters from pastors throughout the state respectfully requesting the Governor deem churches as essential so believers throughout the state can begin to freely worship together again while following all CDC guidelines.
The first letter, sent two weeks ago, was spearheaded by Family Policy Alliance of New Jersey and signed by 100 pastors who reminded Governor Murphy being permitted to gather together was an absolute essential aspect of their faith. They implored Governor Murphy to trust churches to exercise their faith “responsibly and compassionately” as they serve the needs of communities in crisis.
When the Governor failed to respond to the first letter, 67 pastors sent a second letter last week, once again asking Governor Murphy to include churches in his reopening plan by this past Wednesday or face this lawsuit.
As of this writing, Governor Murphy has not directly responded to either letter.
Demetrios Stratis, the attorney representing multiple churches who are now plaintiffs in the lawsuit, offered the following statement:
“Today we filed a Federal lawsuit seeking the courts to override the Orders of the Governors which restrict our House of Worship and citizens of this State from going to church to pray and worship Almighty God. Most importantly, if our Governor will not declare that churches are essential, we ask our Federal Courts to do so for him. Our President has done so, but unfortunately, our State Governor does not believe in what our New Jersey Constitution says, that ‘No person shall be deprived of the inestimable privilege of worshipping Almighty God in a manner agreeable to the dictates of his own conscience… .’ (N.J. Const. Art. I, par. 3.) The language in our Constitution could not be more clear. That churches are not deemed to be essential is a terrible statement about the Governor’s priorities being in the wrong place.”
Rev. Walter E Nistorenko of Abundant Life Church in Ocean View, New Jersey, one plaintiff named in the lawsuit, offered the following statement:
“The freedom to exercise our faith is a right given to us by Almighty God and protected by the First Amendment of our Constitution. I have been quite saddened that Governor Murphy has chosen to ignore this right during the pandemic. He has chosen to keep open the liquor stores and abortion clinics, calling them essential as he has governed this crisis, yet has chosen to keep houses of worship closed. We know that churches are beyond essential. It is where hope, encouragement, and a Divine solution can be found, especially during this challenging season. As the church, we minister to every soul, including those who contracted the COVID-19 virus and those who are struggling in various other ways because of the lockdown. If a second wave reemerges this fall or if another future crisis appears, our essential right to function should not be encumbered again. I am asking Governor Murphy to recognize the value of churches as essential by opening them immediately, and in doing so, providing a critical solution to help New Jersey residents navigate these pressing times.”
Family Policy Alliance of New Jersey applauds the courage of the pastors as they stand up for their fundamental right to freely exercise their faith by worshipping together. Though we are disappointed churches had to sue to have their fundamental rights protected, there’s still time for the Governor to do the right thing and protect the First Amendment rights of all New Jerseyans.
Family Policy Alliance of New Jersey is not party to the lawsuit.