At least two South Jersey churches held services in their buildings on Sunday for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down most institutions, defying Gov. Phil Murphy’s continuing ban on all indoor gatherings of 10 or more people.
The services followed a lawsuit by the churches, and two others in South Jersey, that asks a federal judge in Camden to block Murphy’s executive orders shutting down most religious gatherings, claiming that the orders violate two clauses of the U.S. Constitution.
More pressure on the ban on religious gatherings came on Friday with another lawsuit by 27 New Jersey churches, asking a federal court in Trenton to declare that religious services are “essential” services like supermarkets or hardware stores, contrasting with Murphy’s determination that religious services are not essential.
Alyana Alfaro, a spokeswoman for Murphy, declined to comment on the litigation or on whether churches violating the orders would face enforcement action by police. She cited two executive orders limiting indoor gatherings including religious services to not more than 10 people, and 25 for outdoor gatherings.
But she highlighted Murphy’s statement at Friday’s coronavirus press briefing indicating that restrictions on religious gatherings will be eased in coming weeks.
“I anticipate being able to raise the limits on indoor gatherings in a way that will allow for greater indoor religious services for the weekend of June 12,” Murphy said in a transcript carried on Twitter. “We will continue working with our faith institutions to ensure our houses of worship are strong and safe.”
Temperature checks, masks, social distancing
In Millville, the Dwelling Place Pentecostal church opened on Sunday for its first indoor service since the state-ordered COVID-related shutdown began in March. All congregants were required to take a temperature test in the church lobby, masks were mandatory, and seating was spaced to conform with social-distancing guidelines, said the pastor, Bobby Bledsoe.
To guard against the risk of infection, the church has been sanitized with professional-grade alcohol to standards approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, and was run at a negative air pressure, meaning that the windows would be open at the same time the air conditioning is on to keep fresh air circulating, he said.
The decision to reopen before the governor lifted the relevant orders was based on the reopening of some major retailers, beaches and boardwalks, raising questions about why religious institutions were still effectively locked down, Bledsoe said.
“We didn’t mind closing to be a good neighbor and to follow what the governor said but when all these places have been opening, and you have 300-400 people in a Lowe’s or a grocery store, or you can go to the liquor store or get an abortion, and churches being nonessential, that’s when we decided we had to take a stand and let our voice be heard that we believe the church is essential,” he said.
Associate pastor Franco Acevedo quoted the bible, urging believers not to be deterred from gathering even in the darkness, “and if you look around, it’s pretty dark,” he said, referring to the pandemic and Saturday’s riots in dozens of cities to protest the killing of George Floyd, an African American, by police in Minneapolis.
“I would hope that as people see the hatred and the violence, they will say, ‘This is a time when I need to come and be healed spiritually and emotionally,” he said. “I would like to think we can provide a place for them to come, and to be loved, and to see a light in the darkness.”
Not civil disobedience
Acevedo acknowledged that Sunday’s reopening was pushing the limits of legality, but denied it was an act of civil disobedience.
“We understand that we are pushing the boundaries a bit,” he said, in a parking lot interview. “This is not an act of civil disobedience intentionally. This is an act, I believe, of faith when we say that God is calling us to do, to maybe shake things up a little bit, maybe break some ice, maybe be trail blazers or pioneers to the next level of this new normal.”
Another church in Clementon reportedly reopened over the weekend of May 16-17.
Stephanie Gonzalez, 29, a pharmacy technician from Vineland, said she had been attending parking-lot services at the Dwelling Place church during the pandemic but, sitting in her car before Sunday’s service, was looking forward to the first indoor gathering since the building was closed by the executive orders.
“It’s a blessing because we’re standing up for what we believe in, and everything else is open so why can’t we be?” she said.
Brittany Carastro, 27, who has been a regular congregant for more than a year, acknowledged that she was a little nervous about coming back into contact with others but felt confident that the church had taken all appropriate measures to keep people safe, and so she had decided to return.
“They are going against what the governor has said but at the same time, I’m going to come in and support my church,” she said before the service.
No sign of police
By 10:30 a.m. Sunday, the scheduled time for the service to start, there were no police on the premises, indicating that the orders were not being enforced there.
The police also stayed away from Millville’s New Life Church which also reopened for an indoor service for the first time on Sunday.
Pastor Richard Myers said before the event that he had decided to reopen for inside services despite the executive orders mostly because his community is suffering from the effects of more than two months of lockdown.
Prolonged isolation is producing more divorce, depression, domestic violence and even post-traumatic stress disorder, Myers said, and that’s why people need to come back to church.
“That’s the reason why it’s time to open for us,” he said. “It’s the oath of my ordination to take care of the people that have been assigned to me.”
To guard against any resurgent infection, the musicians in New Life Church, which attracted around 300 people to services before the pandemic, would be about 30 feet away from the nearest congregant, while Myers himself was planning to be at least 10 feet away from attendees, he said.
Details of the lawsuits
Meanwhile, the two churches are joining with Cornerstone Community Church, also in Millville, and House of Praise in Swedesboro in seeking a court order to declare that the executive orders on church operation are unconstitutional.
Their suit, filed in federal court in Camden on May 22, accuses Murphy, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, and State Police Superintendent Patrick Callahan of violating the rights of religion, speech, assembly, due process and equal protection under the First and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution by maintaining the restrictions on religious services.
It says the 10-person limit for indoor gathering effectively bans all but the “tiniest” religious services, and it accused the defendants of imposing tighter restrictions on religious communities than on some other institutions.
“Defendants’ granting of numerous special exemptions to their bans on public gatherings, and inclusion of purportedly ‘essential’ businesses and activities provided that social distancing practices are observed, demonstrates that defendants will consider less-restrictive means to further their purported government interest than those employed with respect to religion,” the suit says.
U.S. District Judge Robert Kugler set an online hearing on June 4 for the defendants to argue why a preliminary injunction against the restrictions on religious gatherings should not be granted. The Attorney General’s office declined to comment on the suit.
In a separate suit filed in federal court in Trenton on May 29, 27 churches asked a judge to rule that religious institutions are just as essential as the businesses like grocery stores and pharmacies that have been allowed to remain open during the pandemic because of that designation.
“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,” said plaintiff pastor Walter Nistorenko of the Abundant Life Church in Ocean View, referring to Murphy. “We know that churches are beyond essential.”