The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday breathed new life into a lawsuit that challenged New Jersey's pandemic restrictions on houses of worship.

An Orthodox Jewish rabbi from Lakewood and a North Caldwell priest from an unrecognized Catholic church sued the state back in the spring, claiming that the limits on gatherings and the requirements for masks were unconstitutional.

In October, a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, finding that the plaintiffs "failed to show a likelihood of success on the merits of their Freedom of Speech and Assembly claims."

But the nation's top court on Tuesday ordered a lower court to review the lawsuit in light of a recent Supreme Court ruling in New York, which in a 5-4 decision found that state's restrictions on houses of worship in hard-hit "red" and "orange" to be "especially harsh."

By the time the court issued its ruling on the Diocese of Brooklyn's lawsuit, the New York restrictions were no longer in place.

The Supreme Court's order on Tuesday, however, does not mean the justices would side with the plaintiffs against Gov. Phil Murphy.

New Jersey's restrictions have been more permissive than New York's.

Since the summer, outdoor religious and political gatherings, including weddings, have had no limitations other than mask-wearing when social-distancing is not possible. Indoor religious, political, entertainment and addiction-support group gatherings are capped at 150 people or 25% capacity even though general indoor gatherings are now capped at just 10.

When the lawsuit was first filed, New Jersey was limiting indoor gatherings, including at houses of worship, to 10 people. By May, indoor gatherings were capped at 25 people and the state was allowing "drive-in" services.

In June, indoor gatherings were permitted to have up to 100 people or 25% of a building's capacity.

State officials have not commented on the Supreme Court's order.

When New Jersey first issued restrictions on houses of worship, most of the state's religious leaders were publicly on board, pivoting to online religious services in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Murphy began to carve out "First Amendment exemptions" to the public safety protocols in late spring as hospitalizations and deaths steadily decreased and his administration faced more concerns and objections to limits on religious and political events.

Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-775-9793 or email

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