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New Mexico megachurches fined $10K for violating coronavirus restrictions

New Mexico megachurches fined $10K for violating coronavirus restrictions

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

Two megachurches in New Mexico’s largest city are facing $10,000 fines after state officials alleged that they violated the state’s coronavirus restrictions.

Calvary Church and Legacy Church, both based in Albuquerque, have been fined for violating restrictions on in-person worship services and mask mandates implemented by the New Mexico Department of Health to stop the spread of the coronavirus. The restrictions, effective 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 and Legacy Churches. According to local news outlet KRQE, videos of the two churches' Christmas services, showing many people gathered with few people wearing face masks, circulated online. 

In response to the KRQE report, the New Mexico Department of Health sent nearly identical letters to the two churches. The letters, obtained by local news outlet KOB, were designed to act as a “notice of contemplated action to impose civil monetary penalty for violation of public health order.”

After noting that the churches “operated at or close to capacity” during their respective Christmas Eve services, the letters informed them that they would face “a civil administrative penalty of $5,000 for operating in violation of the public health order and a $5,000 policy for violating the COVID Safe Practices by failing to wear masks or face coverings.”

In a statement, Legacy Church defended its decision to hold a Christmas service: “We have taken the pandemic seriously from the start, and have prudent measures in place. But when governments exceed their constitutional authority and contradict what we are called on by God to do, we answer first to His authority.”

Calvary Church acknowledged that it attracted “significant attendance” at its in-person Christmas Eve service and defended its actions in a lengthy statement.

“In response to this outpouring, Calvary Church chose not to break fellowship with any worshiper by requiring them to leave the gathering of their church family. Instead, we continued to urge and provide opportunity for our congregants to maintain safe social distance, wear face coverings, and properly sanitize. As for all our services, church seating was staggered in the main auditoriums with every other row cordoned off so people were kept from sitting directly behind or in front of anyone outside their immediate family.

“Moreover, to ensure safety and distancing, an outside screen was provided for people to be in the open air while enjoying the worship broadcast originating from the auditorium. Additional and separate large rooms were available for seating in order to maintain acceptable spacing. Church staff was diligent to monitor allowable percentages, while encouraging people to choose outside seating or seating in the overflow rooms.” 

Skip Heitzig, pastor of Calvary Church, lays out his philosophy regarding the coronavirus worship restrictions on the church website, contending that for some congregants, “the risks of a complete lockdown to their spiritual, mental, and emotional health are equal to or greater than the risk of COVID-19 to their physical health.”

“We realize that more than the maximum number of people allowed per the current order might arrive to our in-person services, and while we will continue to urge them to maintain social distance, wear face coverings, and properly sanitize, we do not foresee breaking fellowship with them by requiring them to leave the presence of the body of Christ gathered,” he added.

As of Thursday morning, nearly 2,100 people have signed a petition calling on the state of New Mexico to hold Calvary Church accountable. The petition accuses Calvary, among others, of “guilting their members into attending church services in person - rather than online.” The petition cited a new sermon series from Calvary, claiming that you “cannot serve from your couch.”

The church told KOB4: "For those to whom the perceived risk to their health and the health of their loved ones outweighs the benefits of worshiping in person, we continue to labor to serve them as best as we can by producing the most engaging online worship experience possible."

Steve Smothermon, senior pastor of Legacy Church, has been a vocal critic of the way Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the state of New Mexico as a whole have responded to the pandemic. “None of the shut downs and mandates have worked,” he tweeted on Nov. 19. “Now this Governor and others are doubling down on failure.”

“How long do we put up with these politicians who are destroying people’s liberty. The constitution is the law of the land!!!” he added.

Earlier this year, Legacy Church sued the state over its worship restrictions but a judge denied the megachurch’s request to ease the restrictions. The church is one of the many places of worship that have taken legal action against restrictions on in-person church services in their respective states.

The U.S. Supreme Court has, meanwhile, issued orders in favor of houses of worship. Most recently, it vacated lower court decisions against churches suing Colorado and New Jersey over each state’s restrictions on worship gatherings. Last month, it ruled in favor of a Catholic diocese and an Orthodox Jewish group, saying New York's restrictions on worship gatherings "strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty."

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