‘No fireworks’ as South Jersey churches hold services, get cited
A pair of Camden County churches were cited for holding Sunday indoor services in violation of Gov. Phil Murphy's executive orders, in place since COVID-19 began spreading in New Jersey.
Solid Rock Baptist Church in Berlin and Bible Baptist Church in Clementon previously announced their plans to host indoor services, putting in place health precautions for parishioners, at a May 20 joint news conference.
Pastor Andy Reese of Bible Baptist Church said that at Sunday's two services, there were "no fireworks, no issues," though police did briefly show up for both. Reese said officers stayed for 15 to 20 minutes and then left.
In Berlin, Police Chief Millard Wilkinson confirmed Solid Rock Baptist Church was facing two disorderly persons citations, for violating the governor's directive by still holding two indoor services.
Wilkinson said the number of people at the evening service was not "in excess of 100" as State Police Superintendent Patrick Callahan also said at Tuesday's daily briefing on the state pandemic response.
Wilkinson said there were no officers in attendance for the evening service in Berlin, however a patrol was directed to go through the lot at 5:30 po.m. He said the citations were delivered Tuesday at the direction of the Camden County Prosecutor's Office.
Reese said he expected to receive two citations in the mail Tuesday, which is how he received a citation for a service that Bible Baptist Church held the week before. Reese said a prosecutor had called his attorneys and asked if they could mail the citation instead of presenting it in-person.
Reese said Bible Baptist only had about a third or so of its congregation present Sunday, as each family was sitting together with at least one empty pew in between. Everyone was told to wear a mask, unless there was a health reason for not wearing one, Reese said.
He said there did not appear to be anyone with such a concern.
Reese said in Clementon, the entire church was being cleaned and sanitized after each service. He also said he is encouraging congregants who are 65 and older, or who have pre-existing conditions, to stay home as the church continues to offer services on Youtube as well.
Pastor Charles Clark said that at his Berlin parish, people were very excited to get back into the church. He said those who attended had made reservations ahead, as the church kept the crowd to about 25 percent capacity and followed through on other preventative measures such as having attendees park in every other parking space, using touchless entry and taking touchless temparatures taken as congregants walked inside.
Clark said everyone wore masks and followed signage to numbered pews, which allowed for at least six feet of social distance between attending families. Solid Rock also has begun using "air scrubbing" machines with HEPA filters, scheduled to go off every three hours or so, Clark said.
He said the Sunday evening service was just his own extended family and church staff, but that the church would begin offering its full schedule to parishioners moving forward. Clark said Berlin Police "have been excellent" and that the municipal police force worked together with the county to ensure the church's safety.
Clark said citations weredelivered Tuesday. The Camden County Prosecutor’s Office said the incidents were handled at the municipal level, as the churches faced disorderly persons charges.
"Part of worship is being able to worship together," Clark said, saying the need for fellowship is even greater after attendees have been in isolation for so long amid the continued pandemic. The Berlin church also continued to offer Sunday services online as a live-stream on Facebook, for those unable to attend in-person.
Clark also said he understands people's health concerns and that he is not a "virus denier." He said the church was not trying to be reckless, but that First Amendment rights put religious observances "right at the front of the line," despite Murphy's executive orders restricting indoor services involving more than 10 people.
“We’re not holding back for some, some crazy reason — we’re holding back because we want to do it responsibly and we don’t want to kill anybody,” Murphy said when asked Tuesday about churches violating the standing restrictions on indoor gatherings of more than 10.
Catholic churches across the state have started slowly toward reopening, by first hosting private prayers.
Bishop David O’Connell, of the Diocese of Trenton, announced private prayers could resume May 13, “or when pastors determine it is safe.”
The Archdiocese of Newark also announced a phased reopening of churches, starting with hours for private prayers, but no gatherings, as of May 17.
St. Joseph’s Church in High Bridge, which is part of the Diocese of Metuchen, has been offering drive-up confessions by appointment for parishioners. The church building is open Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., according to its website.
According to Pew Research, Catholics make up 34% of New Jersey’s adult population, followed by 18% of NJ adults who say they are “unaffiliated” with any particular religion.
Evangelical Protestants account for 13% of NJ adults based on the same findings, followed by 12% who are part of a congregation considered "Mainline Protestant." The data finds 6% of the NJ adult population is Jewish, 3% is Muslim and 3% is Hindu.
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