One New Jersey diocese is taking steps toward opening its churches for private prayer.

Houses of worship around the state have been closed in accordance with Gov. Phil Murphy's executive orders prohibiting gatherings and travel deemed non-essential in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. which has killed about 9,000 residents since March.

Services like Mass have been conducted in front of video cameras streaming to viewers online or on cable TV. Funeral services have been limited to only a handful of participants.

Bishop David M. O’Connell, of the Diocese of Trenton, will allow private prayers beginning May 13 or when pastors determine it is safe. The Feast of Our Lady of Fatima is also May 13, the day celebrated by Catholics to mark the occasion of the Blessed Mother's appearance to the three shepherd children in Fatima, Portugal.

O'Connell said reopening churches is not just a matter of "opening the door and flipping the switch."

"Simply reopening churches for private prayer — even without Mass, sacraments, group prayer— must continue to incorporate some of the restrictions that we have become used to by now: no more than 10 people in a given space at the same time, wearing of masks in public, social distancing, etc," O'Connell said.

New Jersey's religious leaders from all faiths have been adhering to the emergency pandemic orders. The Murphy administration has faced just a single lawsuit filed by a priest from a fringe parish in Essex County and a rabbi in Lakewood arguing that the orders violate their First Amendment rights.

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A task force of pastors in the diocese have been developing a plan for reopening churches.

The Camden, Metuchen and Paterson dioceses along with the Newark Archdiocese have not announced plans to reopen churches.

The Archodiocese on Monday said it will open its cemeteries on Mother's Day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and every Sunday for visitation. Cemeteries will open for visitation from 3 to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday starting May 18. Funerals will permit up to 10 relatives. Face coverings will be required to enter cemeteries and mausoleums and social distancing protocol must be followed.

Contact reporter Dan Alexander at Dan.Alexander@townsquaremedia.com or via Twitter @DanAlexanderNJ

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