Despite Protests, Newark Archdiocese Supports COVID Limits on Churches

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy’s executive orders ban gatherings of any size as the state battles the novel coronavirus.

Basilica in Newark.
Basilica in Newark. (photo: Archdiocese of Newark.)

NEWARK, N.J. — While a New Jersey state senator has launched a petition seeking the “thoughtful” resumption of religious services with “reasonable precautions,” the Archdiocese of Newark has stressed the wisdom of statewide restrictions on gatherings given the prevalence of the novel coronavirus in the region.

“As the New Jersey region unfortunately has the highest number of reported Covid-19 cases in the nation, with increasing reported deaths, it is prudent to continue compliance with statewide mandates for social distancing protocols at this time,” Maria Margiotta, director of communications and public relations for the archdiocese, told CNA April 22.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy’s executive orders ban gatherings of any size as the state battles the novel coronavirus. Businesses deemed non-essential have shut down in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. While symptoms of infection are nonexistent, mild or moderate for most people, a significant minority require hospitalization. Infection can be fatal in a small percentage of cases, especially where the person is elderly or otherwise has health vulnerabilities.

In New Jersey, the executive order’s limits drew objection from State Sen. Mike Doherty, a Republican from the state’s rural northwest.

“We’re asking Governor Murphy to allow religious services to resume in New Jersey in a thoughtful fashion. It’s the right thing to do, both constitutionally and morally,” Doherty said April 19. In his view, “it’s possible for religious services to resume if reasonable precautions are put in place.”

New Jersey has suffered over 5,000 coronavirus-related deaths as of Wednesday, with over 95,000 known cases statewide. It neighbors New York state, where 250,000 confirmed coronavirus cases include over 15,000 deaths, with New York City the worst-hit urban area in the United States.

Doherty emphasized the benefits of religious gatherings in a time of crisis.

“When many of us could be at Sunday services today replenishing a much needed sense of hope in these uncertain times, we instead remain separated in our homes from the communities of faith that sustain us in good times and bad,” he said.

Doherty has launched an online petition for New Jersey residents who wish to share with the governor “their belief that religion is an essential service and constitutionally protected right that should be allowed to resume immediately.” By 7 p.m. local time Wednesday, the petition had more than 1,700 signatures.

Margiotta, the Newark archdiocese spokeswoman, did not address the petition directly. However, she said Catholic churches would reopen only with the decision of the local bishop.

“The process of how and when to reopen churches will be determined by the ordinary and his diocesan staff,” she said. “The well-being and safety of our clergy, staff, and parishioners remain a priority, and the archdiocese will continue to review guidance from federal and state officials as plans to reopen are considered. Although church buildings remain closed, our prayers and celebration of Mass continue via livestream so that we may remain united as one Church and one people amid this ongoing pandemic.”

Last week, Gov. Murphy cited a Harvard University study published in the journal Science as saying social distancing measures might need to last through 2022. Any sports or entertainment gatherings, and possibly high school and college graduations, might need to be held virtually without anyone in the audience.

“I don’t see a normal, even if it were to take place, a normal gathering in the foreseeable future. I just don’t see it," he said April 15, according to New Jersey 101.5. “I’ll be the happiest guy on the planet if I’m wrong.”

“This is a war. It is the fight of our lives. Wars are not won by one person or one small group. They’re won when millions of people come together in a common cause,” he said. “Our cause right now is totally flattening the curve and then seeing it drop down the other side. Then we can begin the process responsibly along with our neighbors of reopening our state and beginning to live life in our new normal.”

“This is no time to let up. We have got to keep at it,” he said, stressing the need for cases of coronavirus to fall to “a manageable reality” where experts can reconsider social distancing measures. Murphy emphasized “a responsible re-opening” with health care infrastructure and protocols that “frankly, we don’t have at the moment.”

Such protocols include fast and accurate coronavirus testing and the ability to trace the contacts of infected people to prevent contagion from spreading. Citing discussions with experts, Murphy said he thought a vaccine for the COVID-19 virus was unlikely earlier than a year or a year and a half from now.

Doherty's petition, hosted at the website of the New Jersey Senate Republicans, said people have been denied the opportunity to attend religious services that “could provide hope, solace, and a sense of community during this time of social distancing and isolation due to the coronavirus.”

According to the petition, “it is possible for churches, temples, mosques, and synagogues to operate safely through reasonable precautions, including outdoor services, social distancing, and limitations on the size of gatherings.”

The petition cited the constitutional right to practice religion that “should not be impeded through overly restrictive executive orders.”

“Governor Murphy should recognize that religious services are no less essential to people's needs than retail services, such as lottery and liquor sales, that have been allowed to continue,” it said.

CNA sought comment from Senator Doherty but did not receive a response by deadline.

The senator is a strong advocate of lifting New Jersey limitations on small businesses, saying “the state needs to reopen sooner rather than later.”

“The cure is becoming much worse than the disease. The idea that churches will be shut down until July is unacceptable,” he said April 15, according to Insider NJ.

He objected to the governor's refusal to allow churches to conduct “outdoor, open air services with proper spacing” while “allowing the essential service of selling more booze to desperate citizens, and allowing customers to pull up to fast food take out windows where the spacing between the customer and the server is zero inches.”