Clark v. Governor of New Jersey, No. 21-2732 (3d Cir. 2022)Annotate this Case
In March 2020, New Jersey Governor Murphy responded to the spread of COVID-19; Executive Order 107 prohibited in-person gatherings and ordered New Jersey residents to “remain home or at their place of residence,” except for certain approved purposes, such as an “educational, political, or religious reason.” EO 107 excepted businesses deemed “essential,” including grocery and liquor stores, which could continue to welcome any number of persons (consistent with social distancing guidelines). Violations of EO 107 were subject to criminal prosecution for “disorderly conduct.” The order granted the Superintendent of the State Police, “discretion to make clarifications and issue [related] orders[.]” He exercised that power, declaring (Administrative Order 2020-4) that gatherings of 10 or fewer persons were presumptively permitted. Neither EO 107 nor AO 2020-4 contained an exception for religious worship gatherings or other First Amendment activity.
Two New Jersey-based, Christian congregations, believing that the Bible requires them to gather for in-person worship services, violated the Orders and were cited. Less than a week after the filing of their complaint, challenging the Orders, Governor Murphy raised indoor gathering limits to 50 persons or 25 percent of room capacity (whichever was less), allowing outdoor religious gatherings without any gathering limits. The district court denied the congregations’ motion for a preliminary injunction. The Third Circuit dismissed an appeal as moot.