NJ rabbi joins lawsuit against ‘unconstitutional’ pandemic order
A rabbi has joined a priest in suing Gov. Phil Murphy, adding State Police Superintendent Patrick Callahan as a second defendant in the federal lawsuit that argues an emergency executive order amid the pandemic is unconstitutional for restricting gatherings including religious services.
Kevin Robinson, of St. Anthony of Padua Church in North Caldwell, filed the initial complaint April 30 in U.S. District Court in Newark. On Wednesday, Yisrael Knopfler was added in an amended complaint.
Knopfler is an Orthodox Jewish rabbi who presides over a synagogue in Lakewood.
According to the lawsuit, the "Governor of New Jersey and his highest-ranking law enforcement officer are either unwilling or unable to recognize that when it comes to addressing a pandemic, there is no relevant difference between people sitting in offices or transportation hubs and people sitting in churches or synagogues."
It also calls the state's restrictions during its first public health emergency a "bewildering hodgepodge of permissions and prohibitions of normal social and economic activity."
The complaint said after the executive order went into effect March 21, "Knopfler has been conducting the synagogue’s morning prayer services in the backyard of the synagogue so that congregants could disperse if the police were called.'"
Guidelines for limiting gatherings to under 10 people were suggested at the White House briefing March 16 by pandemic response coordinator Deborah Birx.
"We’re asking all of them to hold their gatherings to under 10 people, not just in bars and restaurants, but in homes," she said. "We really want people to be separated at this time, to be able to address this virus comprehensively that we cannot see, for which we don’t have a vaccine or a therapeutic."
The lawsuit says that because "the prayers of Orthodox Judaism require a minimum quorum of 10 men, any limitation of plaintiff Knopfler’s congregation to 10 or fewer worshipers would rule out the presence of any other participants, including the parents, relatives and friends at a Bar Mitzvah and even the bride at a wedding, or the baby at a circumcision."
"Religious gatherings in churches or synagogues, which can easily accommodate 'social distancing,' are comparatively small and discrete and manifestly pose far less of a risk of viral transmission than the favored commercial gatherings," the lawsuit says.
The complaint notes at least nine other states that have accommodated in-person religious services. It said that with "numerous exceptions for mass gatherings associated with secular activities," but no exceptions for religious activities, it should be considered "whether Murphy has made 'a value judgment'."
A number of Christian churches and Jewish temples across New Jersey have been hosting live streams and other online services connecting virtually with congregants since late March, including for Holy Week and Passover in April.
The church at which Robinson officiates "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 spokeswoman Maria Margiotta.
The amended complaint was filed by attorney Christopher A. Ferrara, special counsel with the conservative Thomas More Society. Ferrara also is a column writer for the website Catholic Family News, where he has written about his 96-year-old father dealing with what he called the “Wuhan Virus."
Ferrara said that the global pandemic is being used as a political ploy to “justify the panic narrative that the Democrat-media complex are psychopathically exploiting in the hope of burning down the entire United States economy via statewide lockdowns of normal activity in order to deny President Trump a second term.”
An online petition started in April by Sen. Mike Doherty, R-Warren, which said religion is an "essential service" and calling for in-person, outdoor gatherings has been signed just over 2,700 times as of Thursday.
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