New Jersey Religious Leaders Ask Supreme Court to End Curbs on Worship

November 23, 2020 Updated: November 23, 2020

Attorneys for a Roman Catholic priest and Orthodox Jewish rabbi have filed an emergency application with the Supreme Court in hopes of curbing New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s ongoing pandemic-related restrictions on houses of worship.

In the case known as Robinson v. Murphy, the applicants filed an 82-page document with the nation’s highest court on Nov. 19 over what they claim are the Democratic governor’s discriminatory actions abusing religious freedom in the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The applicants’ previous pleas for relief were denied by a U.S. district judge and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit. They’re now asking the Supreme Court to address the case, which they say demonstrates an “indisputably clear” violation of the right to equal treatment.

The new application is directed to Justice Samuel Alito in his capacity as circuit justice for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit.

“Government cannot set up rules that burden places of worship, or worship activities, that do not also pertain to other, comparable secular activities,” said Christopher Ferrara, special counsel to the Thomas More Society, a public-interest law firm that focuses on protecting religious freedoms.

“That is the very crux of religious discrimination and a blatant abuse of the United States Constitution and its Amendments.”

Ferrara’s clients are the Rev. Kevin Robinson, a Catholic parish priest in North Caldwell, and Rabbi Yisrael Knopfler, leader of an Orthodox Jewish synagogue in Lakewood.

The application says that the Garden State’s pandemic restrictions limiting houses of worship to 25 percent of capacity or a numerical cap, whichever is less, while imposing less restrictive limits on secular activities that evidently pose the same or greater risk of viral transmission, violates the applicants’ First Amendment-guaranteed rights to the free exercise of religion, as well as free speech and assembly.

Murphy imposed these limits on churches and synagogues, “while allowing other ‘essential’ places to operate at 100 percent capacity with no restrictions.”

Among the designated essential establishments are schools, non-retail businesses, manufacturers, media services, childcare centers, and homeless shelters. Grocery, home improvement, and liquor stores are deemed “essential retail” and are subject to 50 percent limitations, Ferrara said.

The governor “doesn’t have the right to decide that worship is nonessential. The Founding Fathers made specific provisions against it,” he said.

Epoch Times Photo
Chris Ferrara, attorney for the Thomas More Society. (Courtesy Thomas More Society)

“We are days away from the national celebration of Thanksgiving, originally celebrated by the pilgrims who came to the New World fleeing the religious persecution they experienced in Europe. The irony is that today, 400 years later, we are having to beseech the highest court in the land to affirm those very same rights that America’s original refugees came here to find.”

The applicants also argue that New Jersey’s mask mandate also violates the right to the free exercise of religion. Murphy’s orders allow several open-ended exemptions from mask-wearing for secular reasons such as health, exercise, eating, and safety, while permitting only “brief” or “momentary” removal of the mandated masks in religious settings, such as, presumably, to receive a communion wafer.

The restrictions on houses of worship are not narrowly tailored to have a minimal impact on civil rights, as the Constitution requires, Ferrara told The Epoch Times in an interview.

“Deaths and hospitalizations in New Jersey flatlined, and there has been no curve for months and months and months. Look at the statistics out of New Jersey. The curve peaked in mid-April, flattened in June, and has been flat ever since.”

“All of this hysteria about rising cases is hype and nonsense,” Ferrara said.

“They’re running around testing everybody they can lay their hands on and then they’re screaming that the positive tests are cases of COVID-19. They’re not cases of COVID-19. They’re positive tests with a high rate of false positives.

“The people tested aren’t sick. They’re not in the hospital. They’re not dying. This is all hysteria.”

The same thing is happening in California, Ferrara said. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, “claims he has a million cases of COVID-19.”

“He has a million test results that are based on 20 million tests.”

Positive tests are “falsely depicted” as cases of COVID-19, he said.

Many county sheriffs in New Jersey and California have said they will not go to peoples’ homes and enforce onerous social-distancing rules on Thanksgiving gatherings, he said.

Both governors have been caught violating their own social-distancing rules, he said.

“These Democrat governors don’t follow their own rules. They have been caught again and again flouting their own rules, going on junkets, having parties without masks on, participating in mass demonstrations without social distancing,” Ferrara said.

“They have no credibility.”

The offices of Murphy and Newsom couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.