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Court rules COVID church restrictions legal

Legacy Church, 7201 Central NW, sued the state and Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel in April over a ban on large gatherings. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The state has the right to ban large gatherings in houses of worship during a public health crisis, such as the current pandemic, and those restrictions are not a violation of religious freedoms.

That’s the ruling handed down late Monday by U.S. District Judge James O. Browning in a lawsuit brought in April by Legacy Church against New Mexico Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel and the state of New Mexico.

In his ruling, Browning rejected the megachurch’s claim that the public health orders violated its free exercise rights and its assembly clause rights “because the public health orders are neutral with respect to religion and generally applicable.” Further, Browning said, the public health orders “are unrelated to the suppression of speech or religion, serve a compelling state interest, and significantly less restrictive alternatives are not available.”

Jordy Stern, an attorney with the Barnett Law Firm, which represents Legacy Church, said Tuesday that they were still digesting the 268-page opinion. Legacy Church, he added, “disagrees with the ruling and is considering an appeal to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.”

Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for the Governor’s Office, praised the ruling.

“The state is gratified the court has again found that the lifesaving actions taken by this administration to slow the spread of COVID-19 are within the scope of the law,” she said.

In his ruling, Browning cited an amicus brief from Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which argued that it is not only permissible for New Mexico to include houses of worship and religious services in the temporary ban on large, in-person gatherings but that it also would be unconstitutional to exempt them.

“Granting an exemption here would elevate Legacy’s religious preferences over the health of the entire community,” the group wrote in its brief.

“New Mexico’s public health orders do not violate religious freedom; they ensure that religious freedom is not misused to endanger people’s lives,” Alex J. Luchenitser, associate legal director of Americans United, said in a statement after the ruling.

But Stern said, “Legacy wasn’t asking for something extreme.”

Pointing to the Health Department’s orders restricting the number of people allowed in businesses, Stern said, “When we went in for the hearing on Friday, we were asking for no less freedom than the protesters got around the state, no less freedom than restaurants or gyms received.”

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