U.S. Appeals Court Dismisses Challenge In Fight Over New Jersey Covid Restrictions In Houses Of Worship

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals has dismissed a lawsuit filed by several New Jersey Churches against Governor Phil Murphy over 2020 pandemic restrictions that prohibited gatherings in religious settings, declaring the case “moot” because those limits are unlikely to return.

“Once again, we have been asked to decide whether a challenge to long defunct COVID-19 pandemic restrictions presents a justiciable controversy,” the court wrote.

“Because the in-person gathering limits complained of here were rescinded over two years ago and it is absolutely clear their return could not reasonably be expected to recur, we hold that the case is moot.”

At the height of the pandemic, Governor Murphy mandated some of the strictest restrictions in the nation, before gradually scaling them back over the next two years as coronavirus numbers dropped.

Included in the pandemic-related restrictions were in-person gathering limits on Shuls, churches, and other houses of worship.

Arguing that they were required by their religion to gather for in-person worship services, pastors for two churches began in-person services in May 2021 and were subsequently issued summonses by local authorities.

The pastors then sued the state, the New Jersey State Police and several others, asserting that the orders discriminated against religion by effectively closing churches while permitting secular activities deemed “essential” to operate unimpeded.

Less than a week after the complaint was filed, on June 9, 2020, Governor Murphy rescinded his original Executive Order and raised the indoor gathering limits to 50 people or 25% room capacity (whichever was less).

The order also permitted outdoor religious gatherings without any gathering limits, in recognition of the “particular importance” of “religious services” to the functioning of society.

Over the next few months, Murphy continued to relax the restrictions, allowing up to 100 people at indoor gatherings by late June and when cases spiked again in the winter of 2021, Murphy again tightened restrictions for indoor gatherings but exempted religious services.

In August of 2020, a District Court judge declared the case “moot,” noting that the relief requested by the pastors was already granted with the revised orders but the pastors argued that the state could reinstate restrictions and appealed to the Third Circuit.

In its 39-page ruling issued this week, the Appeals Court argued that it is unlikely restrictions seen in the begging of the pandemic will be repeated, based on what we now know about the virus.

“The accumulation of those changed circumstances thus make the return of the same pandemic and the same restrictions unlikely,” Circuit Judge Marjorie Rendell wrote for the majority.

The court also noted the fact that Governor Murphy declined to reimpose gathering restrictions, even during periods when COVID case rates were increasing.

“The fact that such restrictions did not return during the Delta and Omicron waves—nor during the less extreme increase of May 2022—indicates that gathering restrictions are reasonably unlikely to return as a COVID mitigation measure,” the court wrote, adding that “during the winter of 2020–21, when most gathering contexts were subjected to decreased occupancy limits, religious worship was excepted.”

The decision was 2-1

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