New Mexico church responds to $10K fine for holding services amid COVID-19

Members of Calvary Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico, gather for Christmas Eve service, Dec. 24, 2020.
Members of Calvary Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico, gather for Christmas Eve service, Dec. 24, 2020. | Facebook/Calvary Church with Skip Heitzig

A New Mexico evangelical church maintains that it took measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 after state authorities levied a substantial fine against it for allegedly violating the state’s coronavirus restrictions. 

After Calvary Church in Albuquerque hosted its Christmas Eve services it received a notice of contemplated action from the state's Department of Health stating that the church would be fined $10,000. The church's leadership, however, contend that they followed public health guidelines to reduce the spread of the virus even as it cannot be eliminated. 

"Vulnerable people were discouraged from attending, every other row was cordoned off in the church’s spacious sanctuaries, mask-wearing was encouraged, and family units that came together sat together. We are also confident that we maintained capacity levels in keeping with our state’s current public health order," said a Calvary Church spokesperson in a statement sent to The Christian Post on Friday. 

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"In fact, Governor Lujan Grisham praised us earlier this year for our efforts, so we are especially shocked by the incendiary and politicized rhetoric from the governor’s office," the spokesperson added. 

The church was fined for allegedly violating restrictions on in-person worship services and mask mandates implemented by the New Mexico Department of Health. The restrictions, which went into effect on Dec. 15, require churches located in “red-level” counties to cap attendance at 25% of capacity.

Because Bernalillo County, home to Albuquerque and the largest county in the state, is a “red-level” county, the 25% capacity restrictions apply to Calvary Church. 

Gov. Lujan Grisham's Communications Director Tripp Stelnicki criticized the church in a terse statement this week, insisting that though everyone wishes the pandemic was over, "it’s not, and no pro-virus pastor may deem it so."

"So many New Mexicans have sacrificed — and lost — so much in this pandemic," he said. 

"These illegal and selfish gatherings will directly contribute to more suffering and illness in our state. These church leaders should reflect on the danger they’ve unleashed in their communities," Stelnicki said, referring to Calvary Church and Legacy Church in Albuquerque, where services streamed online showed many people gathered together with few wearing face masks, according to local news outlet KRQE.

The Calvary Church spokesperson went on to say that while they have always had a good relationship with their local and state government officials, they will be requesting an administrative hearing regarding the fines, arguing on First Amendment grounds that even during a pandemic they ought not be penalized for holding services, particularly given recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings affirming Calvary's position on the matter. 

The Supreme Court recently vacated lower court decisions against churches suing Colorado and New Jersey over each state’s restrictions on worship gatherings. In a 5-4 ruling just before Thanksgiving, the high court held that the rights of a Catholic diocese and an Orthodox Jewish group were violated, saying New York state's COVID restrictions on houses of worship "strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty."

"Churches are not entertainment venues like theaters or stadiums. Our congregations provide essential services to our communities. Faith continues to play an indispensable role in helping individuals cope with the direct and indirect aspects of this public health crisis. For instance, Calvary alone has distributed over $1.5 million dollars of direct assistance to those in need in our community over the course of the pandemic," the New Mexico church explained Friday. 

"We will never waiver from our commitment to honor God in all that we do, serve our community according to our calling, and follow best practices as long as this crisis persists. We simply could not take away from healthy people the opportunity to choose to worship at Christmas.”

Legacy Church was also fined for holding services. Earlier this year, Legacy Church sued the state over its COVID orders but a judge denied their request that the restrictions be eased. 

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