TRENTON — Gov. Phil Murphy on Friday marked the anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany by excoriating protestors who have likened pandemic shut-down orders to fascism.

A day earlier, dozens of demonstrators had gathered outside the Statehouse — the latest in a series of demonstrations in the past month in the state capital. Several of the protests, including Thursday's, have been organized and promoted by people who believe in anti-vaccine and pharmaceutical conspiracies and who say the shut-down orders are unconstitutional.

Murphy on Friday said "misguided people" have taken "to calling the necessary efforts we have undertaken to save lives and stop the spread of COVID-19 as 'fascism.'"

"Across the nation we have seen other freely elected leaders — of both parties, by the way — demeaned and depicted as Hitler himself. Not only is this an entirely disgusting false equivalence, it is ignorant and it is repugnant," Murphy said during his daily briefing. "It is ignorant of history of the horrific toll of fascism that is counted in the tens of millions who were killed by its megalomaniacal leaders, led by Hitler but not only Hitler, 20 million soldiers, 6 million Jews, and millions of others in death camps and untold millions of civilians."

Murphy this week extended the public health emergency for a third month and his orders shuttering non-essential businesses has been in effect for seven weeks, resulting in more than a million residents filing for unemployment benefits.

New Jersey has been one of the hardest-hit states in the coronavirus pandemic, with nearly 9,000 deaths tied to the virus since early March. In April, the number of people who died from any cause more than doubled.

Hospitalizations, however, have been steadily decreasing since April 15, which health officials attribute to the state's aggressive social-distancing measures. Public-opinion polls have shown that most residents support the measures.

This week, however, Republican lawmakers called on Murphy to begin easing restrictions on businesses. Murphy has not provided an end date for the shutdown but on Friday announced that a committee of business and religious leaders would begin meeting to develop detailed plans for reopening. Murphy said he expected to have new guidance on recreation and non-essential businesses sometime next week.

Some Republican lawmakers have raised constitutional concerns with Murphy's orders. So far, the administration's restrictions have faced just three challenges in courts. The administration responded to one lawsuit by allowing gun shops to conduct business. Another lawsuit was filed by a priest from a fringe parish and a rabbi who believe the orders infringe on their First Amendment right to practice religion. A Pennsylvania man who is losing rental income from his Jersey Shore property also is suing in federal court.

Murphy — who was ridiculed by critics when he said on a Fox News Channel interview that the Bill of Rights was "above my paygrade" — has defended his actions as necessary measures to save lives. He has supported people's right to protest but on Friday revealed that he took umbrage with some of the discourse.

"Words matter and when the word 'fascism' or words like it is raised and Nazi slogans are used by people who claim to be patriotic Americans to protest against freely elected leaders, whether here or elsewhere across the nation, it should give us pause," he said.

"It is our solemn duty to uphold the legacy as New Jerseyans and as Americans of that generation, which fought valiant to preserve the freedoms of hundreds of millions to live up to. The rights of people today to protest are sacrosanct — that's not in doubt. So should our history, so should decency."

Friday is the 75th anniversary of Nazi Geramny's surrender in World War II. Murphy ordered that all flags — which already are flying at half staff to honor the victims of COVID-19 — be lowered on Friday to also mark VE Day.

"As our greatest generation slips from us, as survivors from the Holocaust slip from us — whether from age or as we have seen, tragically, from COVID-19, we cannot let the lessons they taught us slip away with them," Murphy said. "Never forget. Never again."

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