Two churches' court challenge of state-imposed gathering restrictions on houses of worship is moot, a federal court ruled this week. (Photo by Danielle Richards for New Jersey Monitor)
The Third Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed a lawsuit two New Jersey churches filed against the state over 2020 pandemic restrictions that prohibited gatherings in religious settings, declaring the case “moot” because those limits are unlikely to return.
“Appellants offer nothing more than speculation to suggest that we have a live controversy here,” said Circuit Judge Marjorie Rendell, who wrote the majority opinion. “They invite us to hypothesize about future scenarios in which (a) not only does the COVID-19 pandemic reach crisis levels comparable to early 2020, but (b) New Jersey’s executive officials will choose to ignore everything — both legal and factual — we have learned since those early months and bluntly reintroduce legally suspect gathering restrictions on religious worship.”
As the coronavirus began spreading in New Jersey in 2020, Gov. Phil Murphy signed several executive orders, including temporarily closing businesses and largely prohibiting in-person gatherings. That included, for at least two months, churches, synagogues, and other houses of worship.
Pastors of the Solid Rock Baptist Church and Bible Baptist Church of Clementon say the Bible requires them to gather for in-person services, so they agreed to defy the governor’s restrictions in May 2020, according to the suit. Local police then issued summonses for violating Murphy’s order, and the pastors sued the governor, state police, and the state attorney general in June 2020.
Less than a week after they filed the complaint, Murphy rescinded the executive order that prohibited in-person gatherings and raised the limit to 50 people, or 25% capacity. He also allowed outdoor religious gatherings with no limits besides social distancing.
Murphy relaxed restrictions throughout that summer, allowing up to 100 people at indoor gatherings by late June. When cases spiked again in the winter of 2020, Murphy again tightened restrictions for indoor gatherings but exempted religious services. By May 2021, Murphy lifted all remaining gathering limits for non-religious settings and rescinded social distancing guidelines for religious services.
A judge declared the suit moot in August 2020, when Murphy already had lifted limits on worship groups. But the pastors filed an amended complaint the next month, which was again dismissed as moot. The pastors argued that the state could reinstate restrictions and appealed to the Third Circuit.
That court again declared it moot in a ruling issued Monday, saying indoor religious services haven’t been limited in over a year and there’s no proof Murphy will renew restrictions. New Jersey faced unique pandemic conditions in 2020 that are unlikely to repeat, because officials know more about the virus and its transmission and vaccines are available, Rendell noted.
Murphy didn’t reinstate widespread restrictions when COVID’s omicron and delta strains spiked illness rates in 2021, she added.
“We concluded that the controversy over Governor Murphy’s orders ended with their recession,” the decision reads.
Judge Paul Matey dissented because the governor and his administration have been mum on whether they’ll reimpose limits “down the long COVID-19 road.” The court must ask whether the “allegedly wrong behavior has ended or merely paused,” he said.
“Understandably, any answer is no more than a prediction,” he said.
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