(Guest post by Tom Ciesielka)
Attorneys from the Thomas More Society have filed an Emergency Application for an Injunction Pending Appellate Review from the United States Supreme Court in a federal religious liberty lawsuit against New Jersey Governor Philip Murphy. On November 19, 2020, the not-for-profit national public interest law firm filed the application with Justice Samuel Alito on behalf of Reverend 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.
Thomas More Society Special Counsel Christopher Ferrara explained the core of the lawsuit.
“Government cannot set up rules that burden places of worship, or worship activities, that do not also pertain to other, comparable secular activities,” stated Ferrara. “That is the very crux of religious discrimination and a blatant abuse of the United States Constitution and its Amendments.”
The application alleges, in particular, 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 rights to the Free Exercise of Religion and Free Speech and Assembly.
“The governor has imposed these limits on churches and synagogues, while allowing other “essential” places to operate at 100% capacity with no restrictions. 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,” declared Ferrara. “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 addresses New Jersey’s “mask mandate,” declaring 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.
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 sincerely held religious beliefs.
The clerical duo’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.
The filing details the infringements that Murphy’s Executive Orders and the enforcement of such have made upon their religious liberties.
“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.”
In addition to Murphy, the complaint also names Superintendent of State Police and State Director of Emergency Management Colonel Patrick Callahan, Attorney General of the State of New Jersey Gubir Grewal, Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education Kevin Dehmer, and New Jersey Department of Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli, each in his or her official capacity.
Read the Thomas More Society’s Emergency Application to Justice Alito for an Injunction Pending Appellate Review, filed with the United States Supreme Court in Rev. Kevin Robinson and Rabbi Yisrael A. Knopfler v. Philip D. Murphy, Governor of the State of New Jersey, et. al, on November 19, 2020, here [https://www.thomasmoresociety.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Robinson-et-al.-v.-Murphy-et-al.-Emerg.-App.-for-IPA-to-Justice-Alito-11-19-2020.pdf].Clerics Appeal to the United States Supreme Court Over New Jersey’s Violation of Religious Rights
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