Pastor Charles Clark greeted about 250 congregants — about a quarter of the church’s capacity — to Solid Rock Baptist Church in Berlin, in Camden County, as he defied an executive order from the governor that shutters formal indoor religious services. He says his church has taken measures even beyond the CDC guidelines for indoor gatherings, as stringent, if not moreso, than commercial entities.
“The liquor stores, the Home Depots of the world, the Walmarts, you know, they’ve all been open the whole entire time. And here in New Jersey, Gov. Murphy has just let us sit here and there’s been very little communication and it’s come to the point where we had to press the matter,” Clark said.
Clark says local law enforcement officials told him to expect a citation Tuesday for ignoring the governor’s executive order. He says his and other houses of worship will go ahead with their planned suit against the state this week as part of a nationwide, coordinated effort, aided by the president’s comments that churches provide essential services.
“They put a sign, right down the road, all of our people had to drive by it on Sunday, blinking light. It’s just pressuring our church,” Clark said.
The pastor said he feels the governor is denying the right to religious freedom, adding, “I’m not saying that was his initial intention, but losing religious liberty cannot be a byproduct of the coronavirus.”
At Impact Church in Burlington, Pastor Alex McCormick’s tone is not as confrontational but no less adamant.
“At the beginning I really believed that these things were necessary. And I’m looking at it now and I go to the supermarket yesterday, I went to the hardware store yesterday, I went to Wally World yesterday and, can I tell you, I just don’t have that sense that there should be as much fear about this any more,” McCormick said.
McCormick says he prefers that the governor move to provide official guidance so that lawsuits can be avoided, but that he’s prepared to join it if the governor doesn’t give in.
Rev. Raul Ruiz says he gets where the governor’s coming from and says he agrees with the precautions. Ruiz says his church’s work in Union City goes on seven days a week with online worship, counseling and funeral services.
“The governor never said close the church. They said close the building due to health reasons,” he said. “I don’t intend to open the doors right now. Even if I was allowed, if the government says right now you can go ahead and open the doors and you can have anybody there, I will not do it.”
On Tuesday, the Gov. Phil Murphy addressed the calls to reopen houses of worship at his daily press briefing.
“I personally would love to do that as someone who goes to church. This is a question of doing it responsibly and doing it at the right time,” he said.
Murphy is sticking to his guns with a religious fervor that he may soon find is matched by the professionals.