The president of the Skylands Tea Party said he was threatened with arrest after he planned a protest on the Newton Green in response to Gov. Phil Murphy's executive orders during the coronavirus pandemic.
William Hayden, of Frankford, said he had planned a small gathering Saturday of around 10 to 20 people on the Newton Green in protest, targeting Murphy's stay-at-home directives. The plan was to keep 6 feet apart while live streaming a reading of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which, in essense, calls for the protection against laws that prohibit freedom of speech, religion and the press and the right to assemble and to petition the government. The Newton Green is Sussex Countys only county-owned park.
Hayden knows the coronavirus is serious, stating that his wife, an ICU nurse, sees it first-hand, but notes that Murphy has "taken it upon himself to violate all of our rights."
An avid hiker, Hayden takes particular issue with the closure of county and state parks, noting that as open-air spaces remain closed, popular retailers like Home Depot, Lowes and Walmart are open, allowing more people in tight, enclosed areas.
Murphy ordered parks to close after seeing and receiving reports from state and county officials that people were gathering and failing to abide by social distancing orders. The decision was made in an effort to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus, which as of Friday afternoon had claimed 3,840 lives, including 48 Sussex County residents 26 of whom were clients at the Andover Subacute and Rehabilitation I and II facilities in Andover Township.
But the decision to close parks didn't come without pushback by some Republican lawmakers, including 24th District Assembly members Parker Space and Hal Wirths, who supported the introduction of a resolution by Republican Assemblyman Jay Webber, of Morris County, to reopen the parks. Webber also started an online petition that has, since April 7, garnered over 11,000 signatures.
Hayden said he had obtained a permit in January to host a Patriot's Day event on the Newton Green. The day, held on the third Monday of April each year, commemorates the battles of Lexington and Concord. The coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of the event he said.
County officials closed off the Newton Green this week. On Friday, barriers were placed in the park, blocking the entrance points to the Newton Green which is often bustling with people on a workday or even weekend along with caution tape surrounding the perimeter.
Hayden said he has always had a good relationship with Newton Police Chief Robert Osborn, but "the dynamic changed" when they spoke over the phone this week after the chief got wind of Hayden's plans to hold a protest on the Green, which had been posted on social media.
"He told me he would have to arrest me if I went through (with the protest)," Hayden said.
When asked if he was planning on moving the protest elsewhere today, Hayden didn't rule out the idea, stating he "may be doing something."
Osborn decline comment Friday, but instead referred to a statement issued by the Sussex County Prosecutor's Office.
Gregory Mueller, first assistant prosecutor, said Friday his office was advised of Haydens plan, and based on follow up with social media posts, his office responded by issuing a press release.
In the release, Mueller thanked the residents of Sussex County for their "sacrifice, patience and strength" during the ongoing pandemic, noting that their cooperation and adherence to county and state officials along with Murphy's executive orders has "saved many lives in our community."
The statement, in part, continued: "Your commitment in this regard shows your compassion for your fellow neighbor, honors the sacrifice they are making and reduces the danger posed to first responders and health care workers in our county."
"Your actions now, and in the coming weeks," Mueller said, "Could save the life of someone you know or someone you may never meet," the statement ended.
Murphy has echoed similar sentiments in his daily coronavirus briefings, stating that it is essential to stay home and keep with social distancing to flatten the curve.
On Thursday, Murphy stated, "We will get through this unequivocally, not without cost. Look at the lives, the thousands now, of lives we've lost. But we will, New Jersey, get through this together as one extraordinary family, stronger than ever before."
Hayden said that Murphy's executive orders violate the Bill of Rights, a topic that was addressed during a rare interview between Fox News' Tucker Carson and Murphy on Wednesday.
Murphy, in response during the often-heated interview, said he "wasn't thinking of the Bill of Rights" when he issued his March 21 executive order to require New Jersey residents to stay home while banning social gatherings. Instead, Murphy said he looked at "data and science," specifically that "it says people have to stay away from each other."
First Assistant Prosecutor Mueller, when asked his thoughts of the topic, said he was going to respond by quoting a phrase most often attributed to Abraham Lincoln: "The Constitution is not a suicide pact."
Hayden said he has plans to attend the Open New Jersey rally that is planned for April 28 at the Trenton War Memorial, the location of Murphys daily coronavirus briefings. The event is expected to include hundreds of people, or more.
Lori Comstock can also be reached on Twitter: @LoriComstockNJH, on Facebook: http://www.Facebook.com/LoriComstockNJH or by phone: 973-383-1194.
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