An online petition started by a state lawmaker says religion is an "essential service" and calls for in-person religious gatherings amid the coronavirus pandemic a "constitutionally protected right" that should be allowed to resume with "reasonable precautions."

Sen. Mike Doherty, R-Warren, said residents remain separated at home under directives for the state's first public health emergency, instead of at Sunday services "replenishing a much needed sense of hope in these uncertain times."

A number of Christian churches and Jewish temples have offered online services, using Facebook live, YouTube and Zoom conferencing during weekly services and for Holy Week, Easter and Passover celebrations during the pandemic.

Such isolated religious observances have not been limited to NJ or even to the U.S.

With Italy still reeling from COVID-19, Pope Francis celebrated Easter Sunday Mass inside an empty St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on April 12. Italy has Europe’s highest death toll from the virus at more than 23,000, as reported by The Guardian.

Doherty, who represents parts of Hunterdon, Somerset and Warren Counties, previously said on April 15 he could "no longer support Governor Murphy’s draconian shut down measures."

He launched the petition April 19 on the official website of the New Jersey Senate Republicans, the same day that New Jersey announced 4,202 COVID-19 deaths since March 10, among 85,301 positive cases based on test results.

“Anybody who thinks we’re doing this to take people’s liberties and rights isn’t looking at the data we’re looking at,” Murphy said at Saturday's state briefing on COVID-19.

Murphy continued “We’re doing what we’re doing to try to save lives and keep as few people infected as possible … The minute we think we can begin to tweak this, open things up based on the data, facts and science, we are going to be out there doing that."

The petition from Doherty said “it is possible for churches, temples, mosques, and synagogues to operate safely through reasonable precautions, including outdoor services, social distancing, the wearing of masks and other protective equipment, and limitations on the size of gatherings.”

Many religious leaders have been in-line with the current state directives amid the pandemic.

According to the New Jersey Catholic Conference (NJCC), all public celebrations of daily and Sunday Mass have been suspended since March 18 until further notice due to the global health crisis.

There are more than 3.5 million Catholics registered in parishes in the seven dioceses throughout New Jersey that are served by NJCC.

The petition also appeared to draw a comparison between residents attending religious services to shoppers being allowed inside stores for "lottery and liquor sales," both of which have been allowed to continue under state directive.

The liquor store comparison also was brought up by political commentator, Fox News Channel host Tucker Carlson during a recent interview with Murphy, when Carlson also questioned in-person religious gatherings being restricted.

"That's not denying someone their right to worship in any way. We have to find a different way to worship. I think that's the point," Murphy said to Carlson.

"I've spoken to (Newark Archdiocese) Cardinal Tobin and to the leaders of the Jewish community, of the Muslim community. People are at peace where we have come out," Murphy said during the April 15 exchange.


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