Judge rejects NM megachurch's request to ease in-person worship restrictions
A judge has rejected a New Mexico megachurch’s request to ease state restrictions on in-person worship gatherings amid the state's ongoing lockdown orders in response to COVID-19.
Legacy Church, an Albuquerque-based multi-site congregation of about 20,000 members, sued New Mexico in April, arguing that restrictions on in-person gatherings violated their First Amendment rights.
The church sought both a temporary restraining order and a permanent injunction against a series of public health orders, believing they placed an unfair burden on their religious practices.
U.S. District Court Judge James Browning on Monday ruled against both requests in the case, known as Legacy Church v. Kunkel and the state of New Mexico.
Browning concluded that the various public health orders did not show an inherent animus toward religious groups, but rather included similar restrictions on secular entities as well.
“… as the coronavirus threat ebbs and flows, New Mexico must ensure that its Public Health Orders remain commensurate in scope with current public health needs,” wrote Browning.
“Legacy Church receives the same treatment as all essential retail businesses, because Legacy Church and essential retail businesses must cap occupancy at twenty-five percent, enforce social distancing measures, and require masks.”
Americans United for Separation of Church & State, a left-leaning advocacy organization that filed an amicus brief in the case, celebrated the district court's ruling.
Americans United Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser said in a statement released Tuesday that religious liberty should not be “misused to endanger people’s lives.”
“Public health experts have learned during the course of this pandemic that COVID-19 spreads easily at large indoor gatherings — including religious services,” stated Luchenitser.
“[New Mexico Department of Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel’s] orders protect public health while respecting the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom by ensuring that some New Mexicans’ religious practices are not offered special privileges that could jeopardize the health of others in the community.”
For their part, Legacy Church is promoting a “Protest for Freedom” event on their Facebook page, scheduled to take place on Thursday, which calls for the easing of quarantine restrictions.
“As Americans, we have the right and the ability to choose how we should respond to Covid,” reads the Facebook event description. “The freedom to choose if we want to wear a mask or not. The freedom to choose if we would like to attend church and worship or not. The freedom to choose if we should travel or not.
“We fundamentally believe we are able to make our own intelligent informed decisions and the government should not be forcing our decisions for us. The silent majority will not sit by and watch our freedoms be stripped away.”