Governor's office says public health restrictions are 'equitable' - Albuquerque Journal

Governor’s office says public health restrictions are ‘equitable’

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The U.S. Supreme Court decided this week to stop New York from enforcing restrictions on churches and synagogues, but New Mexico religious services remain subject to attendance limits now and into the immediate future.

New Mexico’s current COVID-19 public health order restricts houses of worship to the lesser of 25% of maximum capacity or 75 people, though the limits have varied throughout the pandemic. A new regulatory framework slated to take effect Wednesday will require capacity limits of 25-50% at houses of worship depending on county-level COVID-19 infection trends.

A spokesman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Friday defended her administration’s actions to curb the spread of COVID-19 as equitable.

“The state of New Mexico’s public health restrictions have been equitable with respect to the free exercise of religion as the capacity requirements for houses of worship, under the emergency public health order, align with the least restrictive of any other category of business or nonprofit activity,” Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for the Governor’s Office, said in a written statement. “In short, the state feels confident its handling of this matter has been constitutional.”

Albuquerque-based Legacy Church had sued the state over a public health order earlier this year, specifically after the COVID-19 ban on mass gatherings was extended to houses of worship.

U.S. District Judge James O. Browning ultimately sided with the state, ruling in July that it did not violate the constitutional right to freely exercise religion “because the public health orders are neutral with respect to religion and generally applicable.” He also ruled that the gathering restrictions “serve a compelling state interest.”

Legacy is in the midst of an appeal.

In response to this week’s Supreme Court decision, Legacy’s Senior Pastor Steve Smothermon said, “We are pleased that the court acknowledges our religious freedom that we have been fighting for.”

He added in a written statement that the church will “continue to worship spiritually and as safely as possible, as we have been, both in person and online,” though the church declined to answer questions about if it had been heeding the state’s current capacity limits.

The issue of neutrality played a key role in this week’s Supreme Court ruling, which was decided by a 5-4 vote.

The entities that sued New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo – including the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and two synagogues – had argued that the state’s restrictions violated the First Amendment. In New York’s COVID-19 “red” zones, no more than 10 people can attend a religious service.

The rules singled out houses of worship, the Supreme Court said in the majority opinion, and the applicants had made a strong showing that the restrictions “violate ‘the minimum requirement of neutrality’ to religion.”

“In a red zone, while a synagogue or church may not admit more than 10 persons, businesses categorized as ‘essential’ may admit as many people as they wish. And the list of ‘essential’ businesses includes things such as acupuncture facilities, campgrounds, garages, as well as many whose services are not limited to those that can be regarded as essential …,” according to the majority opinion.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted that the state had treated religious venues more favorably than comparable secular facilities where people gather for extended periods of time, such as theaters and concert venues.

In New Mexico, the current health order imposes the same capacity restrictions on essential retailers – such as grocery and hardware stores, and laundromats – as it does on houses of worship.

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