A priest has filed a federal lawsuit against Gov. Phil Murphy, saying that an emergency executive order amid the state's first public health emergency is unconstitutional for restricting gatherings including religious services.

Kevin Robinson, of St. Anthony of Padua church in North Caldwell, filed the complaint April 30 in U.S. District Court in Newark.

"The parish has no affiliation with the Archdiocese of Newark. It is part of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), which is 'Catholic,' but NOT in communion with Rome, and therefore, is not recognized by the Roman Catholic Church," according to Archdiocese of Newark Communications Director Maria Margiotta.

According to the complaint, Robinson said he "has been threatened by local law enforcement with arrest and criminal prosecution if he dares to offer a Mass or conduct any other public gathering in his church, which remains closed due to this threat," under the March 21 executive order aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19.

As of May 3, New Jersey had 126,744 positive cases based on test results and 7,871 deaths from COVID-19.

As first reported by The Red Elephants, a conservative blog, Robinson was assisted in his case by attorneys with the St. Thomas More Society of Catholic Lawyers.

An Evangelical Christian church in Illinois similarly sued Illinois Governor JB Pritzker for a stay-at-home executive order in effect the same day as Murphy's.

On April 30, Pritzker issued a modified executive order, which allowed for Illinois residents to "engage in the free exercise of religion," provided that gatherings be limited to 10 people or less and following social distancing requirements to keep in line with Center of Disease Control and prevention guidelines.

Illinois also said "religious organizations and houses of worship are encouraged to use online or drive-in services to protect the health and safety of their congregants."

A number of Christian churches and Jewish temples across NJ have been hosting live stream and other online services connecting virtually with congregants since late March, out of precaution during the pandemic, including for Holy Week and Passover last month.

An online petition was launched last month by a state lawmaker who said religion is an "essential service" and called in-person religious gatherings amid the coronavirus pandemic a "constitutionally protected right" that should be allowed with "reasonable precautions."

Since April 19, the petition started by Sen. Mike Doherty, R-Warren, has been signed just over 2,600 times as of Sunday.

The SSPX holds some views at odds with the Catholic church’s official teachings and doctrine, as written about by a Catholic bishop in Wisconsin in a 2015 column.

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