An evangelical church in Albuquerque is suing the state of New Mexico, arguing that the governor violated their First Amendment rights with her policy limiting gatherings due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
According to local outlet KRQE, Legacy Church was attempting to livestream its Easter service as other churches around the country have done in light of the coronavirus outbreak and state-mandated social distancing policies that have forbidden large crowds from assembling in "non-essential" gatherings.
But in New Mexico, the amended order from Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, limited gatherings to no more than five people and some say it was issued in a sinister manner given its timing and constraints.
“Really what I consider a very egregious act on her part that at 5 o’clock on Saturday she puts out this new order for churches, basically not making churches essential when they were before, and she does it on the eve of Easter,” Lead Pastor Steve Smothermon told the news outlet.
The church maintains they need a group of approximately 30 people to do their livestream operation well. That group includes members of a worship team, instrumentalists, technical staff and the pastor.
“We wouldn’t be able to put on the quality that we have and the engagement that we’re able to do and look people in the eye, you know through the camera and say 'you know we can’t be there but we’re together.' And I think it would hinder our quality,” Smothermon said.
A spokesperson from the governor's office said that the updated policy clearly permits the livestreaming of religious services and that countless other congregations are adhering to the boundaries set forth in the order and that it only prohibits places from assembling more than five people into a space where they are within 6 feet of each other, according to the Albuquerque Journal Monday.
“That language is what must be abided by. I can’t say whether or not the folks at Legacy Church actually read the order,” the spokesperson said.
“At the end of the day, the most important thing is minimizing person-to-person contact in order to save lives. If someone values production quality over public health, I don’t know what to tell them.”
Legacy Church has approximately 20,000 members.
“I understand the tremendous social and spiritual burden this places on New Mexicans, but ultimately, we must do everything we can to limit the spread of COVID-19, including being absolutely clear that mass gatherings of any type are not permitted in houses of worship,” Gov. Grisham said in a prepared statement Saturday.
Despite the restriction, the church proceeded with its plans to livestream their service with all the people needed to do it, having only learned of the updated order that weekend. Yet Smothermon does not like it that he is now a criminal.
The legal action comes amid growing debate about the role of government and what it can legitimately do during an emergency like a public health crisis while continuing to safeguard the constitutional freedoms of Americans.
The complaint has been filed in federal court and is seeking a temporary restraining order and permanent injunction against the public health orders. In a conference call with the U.S. District Judge James Browning, who has been assigned to the case, both sides have indicated willingness to reach a compromise. Lawyers for the church said the church would continue to turn parishioners away and have only online services.