New Jersey Religious Leaders Appeal to Supreme Court in Coronavirus Fight

Phil Murphy (Getty Images)
November 23, 2020

An Orthodox Jewish rabbi and a Catholic priest are teaming up to appeal to the Supreme Court in a religious-liberty lawsuit challenging New Jersey's coronavirus restrictions.

The pair of religious leaders said that the state's cap on in-person religious gatherings is lower than restrictions on non-religious events and that the state's mask mandate does not provide enough exemptions for religious gatherings. Religious gatherings "are still being treated unequally relative to numerous comparable secular activities," the two argue.

Rabbi Yisrael Knopfler, leader of an Orthodox Jewish synagogue, and Catholic priest Kevin Robinson filed an application with Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito, who indicated his sympathy for religious challenges to coronavirus restrictions in a speech earlier this month. The application asks the Supreme Court to step in and temporarily allow religious gatherings to operate at the same capacity as essential businesses.

"Government cannot set up rules that burden places of worship, or worship activities, that do not also pertain to other, comparable secular activities," special counsel Christopher Ferrara, who is representing the religious leaders, said. "That is the very crux of religious discrimination and a blatant abuse of the United States Constitution and its Amendments."

The application specifically takes issue with the state's mandating a 25 percent capacity limit on in-person attendance at places of worship. Some essential businesses, including schools, are allowed 100 percent capacity, while others, such as grocery and liquor stores, are allowed 50 percent capacity. The application requests that religious institutions be treated as essential businesses.

"We are eight months into this pandemic and still, religious organizations are having to appeal to the courts for non-discriminatory treatment – something that is enshrined in our federal laws and in the constitutions of the states," Ferrara said.

The challenge comes as the virus surges across the country and states reimpose lockdown efforts. New Jersey governor Phil Murphy's (D.) office told the Washington Free Beacon that it does not comment on pending litigation.

New Jersey is the latest in a string of states experiencing legal conflict between state governments and religious institutions. California has been locked in extended legal struggles with churches trying to get coronavirus restrictions on in-person, indoor worship lifted.

In New York, a coalition of Jewish groups asked the Supreme Court to take action against New York governor Andrew Cuomo's (D.) coronavirus restrictions. The groups accused Cuomo of targeting Orthodox Jews after "the governor explained that he was enacting new restrictions on places of worship, in certain neighborhoods that contain many Orthodox Jews, because he believed that this religious minority is to blame for a recent increase in COVID-19 infection rates."

Cuomo doubled down on his attacks on Orthodox communities after a secret wedding, with thousands of unmasked guests in attendance, took place in a Brooklyn synagogue.