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NJ COVID Religious Freedom Case Taken to Supreme Court, Evokes Reminder of Why Pilgrims Fled to America


Attorneys with the Thomas More Society have filed an emergency application for an injunction from the US Supreme Court in a federal religious liberty lawsuit against New Jersey Gov. Philip Murphy (D). 

Last Friday, the national nonprofit public interest law firm filed the application with Justice Samuel Alito on behalf of Rev. Kevin Robinson, a Catholic parish priest, and Rabbi Yisrael Knopfler, leader of an Orthodox Jewish synagogue, who are suing Murphy and his administration for discriminatory abuses of religious freedom in their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under Murphy's current edicts, Robinson's and Knopfler's respective church and synagogue are barred from holding indoor religious worship services and passing on proper religious instruction in a manner consistent with their religious beliefs.

The priest and rabbi's previous pleas for relief were denied by the District of New Jersey and Third Circuit Court of Appeals, and they are now asking the high court to address this widespread issue of national importance: the "indisputably clear" violation of the right to equal treatment. 

Their application alleges that New Jersey's COVID-19 restrictions limiting houses of worship to 25% 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 Robinson's and Knopfler's constitutional rights to the Free Exercise of Religion and Free Speech and Assembly. 

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"The governor has imposed these limits on churches and synagogues while allowing other 'essential' places to operate at 100% capacity with no restrictions," noted Thomas More Society Special Counsel Christopher Ferrara. "These venues include schools, non-retail businesses, manufacturers, media services, childcare centers, homeless shelters, and many more. Those subject to 50% limitations are so-called 'essential retail' such as grocery, home improvement, and liquor stores."

"Governor Murphy doesn't have the right to decide that worship is non-essential. The founding fathers made specific provisions against it," Ferrara explained. "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 complaint also targets New Jersey's "mask mandate," arguing that it also violates the right to the Free Exercise of Religion. The governor's orders allow numerous open-ended exemptions from mask-wearing for secular reasons such as health, exercise, eating, and safety, while allowing only "brief" or "momentary" removal of the mandated masks in religious settings.

"We are eight months into this pandemic and still, religious organizations are having to appeal to the courts for non-discriminatory treatment – something that is enshrined in our federal laws and in the constitutions of the states," added Ferrara. "It is high time that all governors, especially Philip Murphy, be compelled to honor the guarantees of the United States Constitution."

You can read the Thomas More Society's Emergency Application to Justice Alito here. (PDF)

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