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Church sues state over coronavirus rules

Legacy Church located on Central Ave NW just west of Coors. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Leaders of a local church and state officials spent part of the Easter weekend wrangling over how public health orders would affect places of worship.

Legacy Church, which has about 20,000 members, filed a complaint late Saturday against the state and Kathyleen Kunkel, the secretary of the Department of Health, after state officials said houses of worship were no longer exempt from a public health order banning large gatherings.

The federal court filing seeks a temporary restraining order and permanent injunction against state orders prohibiting people from gathering at churches and other places of worship in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Though Legacy is not holding in-person services, the church’s online production requires about 30 people in the building, including the pastor, the band and others involved with production, Pastor Steve Smothermon said.

That puts the church at odds with state orders to limit gatherings to no more than five people. But Smothermon said that the size of the church, which can hold about 2,500 people, gives them ample space to adequately social distance from one another.

“We’re not trying to; we’re doing it,” Smothermon said of social distancing.

The Governor’s Office announced just before 5 p.m. Saturday that houses of worship were no longer exempt from state public health orders limiting large gatherings.

The order doesn’t stop churches from “holding services through audiovisual means.” But Smothermon said attorneys from the church and Health Department couldn’t reach a consensus late Saturday about how many people would be allowed into the church to produce the Easter service.

Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for the governor, said the order only bars places from bringing together more than five people into a space where they are within 6 feet of one another.

“That language is what must be abided by. I can’t say whether or not the folks at Legacy Church actually read the order,” Meyers Sackett 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.”

And she said the orders specifically allow for churches to continue online services, and that the governor has encouraged as much.

“There are countless congregations already live streaming services for their congregations, doing so within the public health and safety boundaries of the expanded public health order, which the governor applauds and encourages,” she said.

Smothermon said Legacy Church learned of the announcement after 7 p.m. when wrapping up recording that evening’s services.

Church officials then worked with Gregg Schmedes, a Republican state representative from Tijeras, to file legal action against the state.

“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,” said Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in a prepared statement Saturday.

Legacy went ahead with its planned Sunday service. And Smothermon said about 30 people were in attendance when it was recorded.

“So now I’m a criminal,” he said.

Smothermon said his church plans to continue having only online services and continue practicing social distancing. For example, members of the band were spaced more than six feet from one another onstage.

Legacy’s injunction argues that the public health orders violate the church’s First Amendment rights. It is seeking an order temporarily and permanently stopping the state from prohibiting people to gather at any church.

The case was assigned to U.S. District Judge James Browning.

Attorneys for the church and the Health Department had a conference call with Browning on Monday, according to court documents.

Both sides indicated on the phone call that they would be willing to reach a compromise. Church attorneys said the church would continue to turn parishioners away and have only online services.

The state said an agreement could be reached but raised concerns about the church trying to operate as an “essential business,” according to the clerk’s minutes of the phone call.

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