Shawn Hyland, Director of Advocacy for Family Policy Alliance of New Jersey, delivered a letter to Trenton on behalf of pastors and churches.
TRENTON, New Jersey – Today, 67 pastors signed a letter to Governor Phil Murphy asking him to let churches reopen in some manner by next Wednesday – or face a lawsuit. The letter, which includes the prospective lawsuit, was a partnership between Family Policy Alliance of New Jersey, attorney Demetrios Stratis of Fair Lawn, New Jersey, and Pastor Walter Nistorenko of Abundant Life Church in Seaville, who mobilized pastors from across the state to add their name to this joint good-faith appeal.
This is the second letter pastors have sent to Governor Murphy asking for permission to reopen. In the first letter, sent last week by Family Policy Alliance of New Jersey, 100 pastors expressed their commitment to follow CDC and local health guidelines and asked to be included in Phase 1 of New Jersey’s reopening plan. The Governor did not respond to that letter.
Shawn Hyland, Director of Advocacy for Family Policy Alliance of New Jersey, reacted to the Governor’s silence: “It is disappointing that Governor Murphy has disregarded the request of 100 pastors who respectfully requested to be treated equally in reopening and who have committed to following CDC guidelines in caring for their community. New Jersey would not be alone if it were to allow churches to safely reopen. Many states across America, including most recently Massachusetts, acknowledge that houses of worship can safely practice their faith with more than 10 people present.”
The new letter asks for a special designation separate from for-profit businesses. “As a threshold matter,” the letter reads, “houses of worship such as churches should not be relegated to the category of ‘business’ – essential or not. Houses of worship warrant separate and independent consideration given the sacred constitutionally protected activity that takes place inside.”
It stands out that churches were not named in the Governor’s reopening plan. “The Governors Phase reopening plan listed libraries, museums, indoor restaurants and entertainment, but not churches,” said Hyland. “We hope the Governor does not deem tax paying businesses more essential than charitable organizations that are ministering to the spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical health of their members. That would be religious discrimination.”
Mr. Stratis, the attorney representing the pastors, elaborated on the constitutional claims.
“Governor Murphy has violated the First Amendment of our US Constitution and our New Jersey Constitution, two documents he swore to uphold when he took office. Freedom to exercise our religion does not take a vacation during a pandemic and, in fact, is needed even more so during those times. We can debate whether Governor 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.”