Leaders of an evangelical megachurch in New Mexico are “puzzled” after being fined $2,500 because staff members did not wear masks during a Christmas Eve service last December.
After initially fining the church $10,000 late last year for allegedly violating capacity restrictions and the mask mandate during the COVID-19 pandemic, the New Mexico Department of Health Office of General Counsel reduced the fine to $2,500 last month.
A June 10 by the Secretary of Health Tracie C. Collins “further ordered that a civil monetary penalty of $2,500 is imposed upon the Appellant Calvary Church on the basis that church staff members did not wear masks during the Christmas Eve service in violation of the Public Health Order.”
Calvary Church, an Albuquerque-based non-denominational congregation lead by Pastor Skip Heitzig with over 16,000 weekly attendees, released a statement responding to the state health department’s updated ruling. Even though the fine was reduced, he said the church is still confused, nonetheless.
“[I]n a video interview, the governor [Michelle Lujan Grisham] told me that no one had to wear masks from the stage. ... We [the church congregation and staff] did everything the state asked us to do,” Heitzig told The Christian Post in an interview this week.
“On the one hand, the governor said that pastors could preach from the stage with no masks. On the other hand, the State Health Department has fined us now for doing just that,” a statement from the church's executive team reads. “What did the state expect: for our pastors to deliver the Christmas message from behind a mask? The issue isn’t the amount of the fine but that there was even a fine at all for Christians worshipping over Christmas.”
The initial citation from Dec. 28, 2020, stated that staff and congregation violated the Public Health Order from Dec. 15 that restricted in-person worship services to 25% capacity in Bernalillo County and mandated mask-wearing.
The citation stated that “hundreds of congregants gathered in close proximity to one another” and that “attendees were not wearing masks during this event.”
A hearing on the matter was held in March, and a recommendation was made in April by hearing officer Craig Erickson. According to reports, the hearing officer found no adequate evidence to determine if the capacity restriction was violated. The hearing officer also held that while church staff violated the mask mandate, the church could not be held responsible for attendees who did not wear masks.
The cabinet secretary’s ruling from last month doesn’t mention the congregation, solely the church staff.
Heitzig voiced concern that Gov. Lujan Grisham’s spokesperson seemed to have referred to him and other pastors who held Christmas services as “pro-virus” pastors.
“At Christmas last year — one of the holiest and most important seasons for Christians — we welcomed the weary into our church to find hope and light,” Heitzig said. “For this action, the governor’s office labeled us ‘pro-virus’ pastors. More recently, the governor called those expressing their disagreements with her ‘lizard people.’”
When Heitzig heard of this claim against him specifically, he said “he immediately picked up the phone to get in contact and directly discuss this with the governor. But she didn’t answer. ... She never even tried to call me back.”
In its statement, the Calvary Church executive team maintains that elected officials should spend less time “name-calling” and more time looking for ways to “work together with all New Mexicans.” The church’s leadership group stressed that crackdowns on worship are happening in New Mexico and other states like New York and California.
Americans “are going to have to decide at the ballot box how important freedom is to them — especially religious freedom — and that must impact which democrats, republicans or others they vote for,” the church concluded.