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Gov. Phil Murphy allowed houses of worship to open up to 50 people or less beginning June 12. KATE ALBRIGHT/ FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

On May 21 a letter was sent to Gov. Phil Murphy from a law firm representing 67 churches and their pastors and congregants arguing the right to assemble and worship. 

“We urge you to deem churches ‘essential’ and permit them to open their doors and allow people to gather and worship Almighty God as you currently permit other ‘essential’ businesses to operate. As followers of Christ, we seek to vindicate our constitutional liberties peacefully and amicably,” the letter read. 

“However, if we do not hear from you favorably by May 27, 2020, we plan to file the attached Verified Complaint for Injunctive Relief in the federal District Court of the State of New Jersey. On behalf of people of faith throughout the state, we pray you will take this opportunity to uphold the United States and New Jersey Constitutions and allow those who wish to attend in-person church services to do so.” 

Father Marc greets parishioners at St. Cassian’s Church when it first reopened for private prayers only.
KATE ALBRIGHT/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

Two days later, the governor allowed churches across New Jersey to reopen on June 12 after more than eight weeks of having their doors locked. 

This week, the governor  raised the number allowed to gather indoors to 25 percent of a building’s capacity or 50 people total, whichever number is lower. 

SAFETY VS. RELATIONS

Through the pandemic, many church leaders have weighed the safety of their congregants with their need to worship God together. 

“We are deeply relational, and it’s been very painful [not to be together],” said the Rev. Ann Ralosky, of First Congregational Church. “But it makes me angry that some would put congregants at risk over the constitutional debate.” 

Murphy said that during the pandemic the state COVID team remained in close contact with communities of faith, with an “overwhelming number who have taken to heart the need for social distancing to protect the health and safety of their congregations.”

Faith leaders have had to balance the need for safety over their communities’ need to be together during a time of crisis.

Even with Murphy’s blessing, some, such as the First Congregational Church and Congregation Shomrei Emunah, are not ready to reopen.

“We are being very, very deliberate about cherishing and preserving human life, which is the ultimate sacred force in our world,” said Rabbi David Greenstein of Shomrei Emunah. “Religion and serving God is all for the purpose of respecting God’s creatures and human beings. We are not going to jeopardize that.” 

Greenstein said that a team is looking at when they feel safe to reopen based on the best science, but it would not be in two weeks.

Although the First Congregational Church can seat up 800 people and the sanctuary would allow for safe social distancing, Ralosky said that opening could place their most vulnerable at risk or, in a way, could exclude those at risk who choose not to gather due to fear of contracting COVID. 

Murphy said that although closing their doors for worship has been hard on the faithful, most leaders have understood the risks. 

“Our faiths are supposed to, after all, bring us together, and so many of our faith leaders of every religion and denomination have been tremendous in their support for our efforts to save lives. They are the ones who deserve, frankly, the media coverage,” the governor said.

His plan is to raise the limits on indoor gatherings in a way that will allow for fuller attendance at  indoor religious services. But even when church leaders decide to open their doors, those services will be very different.

Ralosky said she doesn’t see singing, or even a whispering of prayer responses. No sign of peace or communion will be offered, she said. 

CATHOLICS FIRST TO OPEN DOORS

The Catholic clergy has had some time to prepare, opening their doors first on May 17, after the Newark Archdiocese declared that churches could open for private prayer time only and while adhering to strict limitations on gatherings. On Monday, June 15, they will begin hosting week-day Masses only, as well as funerals, baptisms, and weddings. On June 21, they expect to begin Sunday Masses.

“We are committed to health of our parish communities and wider society. As we transition to this time with new protocols and limitations out of love and respect for human life and health, let us act responsibly and adhere to guidelines,” said Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, C.Ss.R, Archbishop of Newark.

No hymnals, Bibles or other paper will be distributed. Communion will take place, but by hand only. Passing of the collection basket will not take place. Parishioners should bring their own hand sanitizer.

Cardinal Tobin continues to dispense the faithful from the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days. Parishes will continue to livestream Mass so that those unable to attend may maintain a spiritual connection with their local parish.

“If you are ill or at higher risk for illness, or if attending public Mass in the current climate brings you anxiety, please be at peace and remain at home,” Cardinal Tobin said.

LESSONS LEARNED

The announcement of the reopening of Catholic churches in May came days before the Centers for Disease Control released a report, “High COVID-19 Attack Rate Among Attendees at Events at a Church — Arkansas.”

The CDC report examined the “cascading effect” of two congregants with the virus, who attended gatherings at their church in March. Thirty-five of the 92 attendees got COVID-19, resulting in three deaths. Later, through contact tracing, it was discovered that 26 more individuals contracted COVID through the church members, resulting in one death.

“So just through two individuals spreading the virus, 61 cases of confirmed cases of COVID-19 were found and four deaths resulted. It emphasizes that large gatherings pose a significant risk for the transmission of the virus,” state Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said during a COVID briefing in May.  

But for the pastors who signed the letter directed to Murphy, of which none were from Montclair, reopening their physical doors so the people of New Jersey could once again worship God in accordance with their religious beliefs is not only a right and their choice, but a need during precarious times. 

“Pastors understand the state’s health and safety protocols respecting social distancing and sanitization and would, of course, abide by such requirements in resuming in-person church services,” the letter reads.

However, for Ralosky’s congregation, whose attendance for worship has doubled from 150 to 300 and for Bible study by using Zoom and social media, “we have found the core of God is not in the sanctuary.”   

Murphy acknowledged the importance of faith-based institutions in the COVID fight.

“Even if we bat 1,000 as a government, we do everything right, we cannot remotely get to where we need to get to as a state without our faith institutions, both inside their houses of worship and as importantly in their tentacles into the community, and we’ve seen that throughout this pandemic. We want them, these institutions, to be strong and safe. This is especially meaningful in our communities of color, which have been hit particularly hard.”

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