April 2020 – Letter to Governor Murphy during the Corona lock down

      Pastor Bradford Winship

      Jersey Shore Evangelical Ministers Fellowship

      1 Matawan Road

      Laurence Harbor,  NJ  08879


      April 20, 2020

      The Honorable Phil Murphy

      Governor of New Jersey

      Office of Governor

      PO Box 001
      Trenton, NJ 08625

      Dear Governor Murphy:

      During this time of pandemic, the churches pray that you will be blessed with wisdom and personal good health.

      The churches are requesting clarification on your executive orders with regard to church services.  Within your orders, there were no references to the churches except for an allowance that residents may “leave the home for an educational, religious, or political reason.”   This has created some confusion concerning whether to classify the church as an essential or non-essential entity.

      Obviously, the churches are ready to make every effort to aid the state in mitigating the effects of COVID-19.  After weeks of media coverage, church leadership has become well aware of the safety requirements.  To accommodate, most churches can provide online worship services as well as on-location services with safe social distancing (up to 10-20 feet spacing) for those members who have need for in-person worship. Churches that cannot meet the health requirements are certainly out of the question.

      Many Catholic churches are unlocking their doors and allowing congregants to enter for prayer as long as they wear face coverings and sit in designated seating. 

      Not only is the church “essential” in the legal sense of the word, but the church can meet all requirements imposed upon essential businesses.  In fact, churches can provide much better social distancing and cleaning procedures than the typical essential business (warehouse, office or grocery store).  Church services also impose less risk because churches meet only weekly for one hour while most essential businesses meet daily for eight hours.  Also, similar to essential businesses, church attendance is predominately a consistent, well-monitored group.

      In addition to being able to meet all health requirements put upon essential businesses, like the media, the churches have special first amendment rights. 

      On Tuesday, April 14, Attorney General William Barr issued a statement regarding certain states that were prohibiting church services.  In short,    

      (A) “Even in times of emergency, when reasonable and temporary restrictions are placed on rights, the First Amendment and federal statutory law prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers.”

      (B) Regarding executive orders upon the churches, state governments must establish that its actions are “the least restrictive means of achieving a compelling governmental interest.”

      (C) “Government may not impose special restrictions on religious activity that do not also apply to similar nonreligious activity.”

      Finally, there is a mental/social necessity for church meetings. For many members, the church is their only family.  The same mental health rationale for keeping liquor stores open should also be applied to AA meetings, group counseling and church meetings.

      This request for clarification is not an appeal to allow churches to return to normal operations, but for The State of New Jersey to classify the church services as an essential social service under the same regulations as essential retail, office, warehousing, manufacturing, construction businesses, etc.   As an essential service, the church can fulfill  Order 107.11 and “make best efforts to reduce staff [congregants] on site to the minimal number necessary to ensure that essential operations can continue.”    This can be done by encouraging most church congregants to participate online.

      We ask you, as Governor, to issue a specific order with regard to the churches since it is questionable as to whether the State Director of Emergency Management, or any other local official, has the authority to make rulings or interpretations in the absence of any mention of churches in your executive orders.


      Pastor Bradford Winship

      Jersey Shore Evangelical Ministers Fellowship

                                                                                                      CC       Matthew J. Platkin – Chief Counsel to the Governor

      Gurbir Grewal – NJ State Attorney General