They sat close together — hundreds of them — holding candles in the cavernous sanctuary of Legacy Church on Christmas Day, few of them appearing to wear masks.
Photos and video of that gathering and a Christmas Eve service at Calvary Church have drawn public outrage on social media and on Monday the state Department of Health notified the two churches that they were each being fined $5,000 for violating New Mexico’s public health orders. Those orders, aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19, limit occupancy of churches and other public spaces, mandate the wearing of masks and urge social distancing.
The DOH notice said that in addition to the $5,000 fines, “other remedies against the same conduct” will be taken as allowed by state statute, although these were not detailed.
A spokesman for the governor blasted the churches for the “illegal and selfish gatherings,” saying they “will directly contribute to more suffering and illness in our state.”
But the churches are pushing back.
Legacy Church, in a statement, accused state officials of trampling on their rights.
“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’s chief Pastoral Officer, Neil Oritz, explained that the church “experienced a significant attendance on one of the most celebrated and sacred days of our Christian faith.” In response to the large turnout, the church “chose not to break fellowship with any worshiper by requiring them to leave the gathering of their church family.”
Ortiz maintained that Calvary continued “to urge and provide opportunity for our congregants to maintain safe social distance, wear face coverings, and properly sanitize.”
Church seating at Calvary, he said, was staggered with every other row cordoned off, indoor overflow rooms and an outdoor screen were provided, and masks were handed out to those who did not have one as they entered.
Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, said the parishioners and leaders of the two churches violated both the state’s public health order “and common sense.”
“They endangered the lives livelihoods and health of not only their parishioners but their entire communities — and given how quickly this virus can spread, potentially our state as a whole.”
Stelnicki went on to say that while all New Mexicans wish that the pandemic was over, it clearly is not and no pastor “may deem it so.”
“These church leaders should reflect on the danger they’ve unleashed in their communities,” he said.
As of Monday, the virus had already infected more than 138,000 state residents and killed 2,380.
Many people in the community blasted the churches on social media.
“Albuquerque, here’s our next super-spreader event,” said one person.
“You should all be ashamed of yourselves,” wrote another. “So many of us are giving up so much to care for each other, only to have people like you throw our efforts away by callously disregarding all public health guidelines (and the law).”
A few defended the churches, with one person posting, “You understand Jesus is bigger than Covid, right?”
Ortiz acknowledged that some will disagree with the decisions made by Calvary’s spiritual leaders.
“We do care about people’s physical health, and we take great precautions,” he said. “… At the same time, we believe that people can be responsible adults and make their own choices about their life and health and that of their families.”
The large turnout for their Christmas service indicates “the deep conviction many people have that corporate worship is essential and that as long as health considerations are maintained, it is safe and necessary to worship their God.”
New Mexico has adopted a three-tiered color system to show the infection rate in different counties, with green being the lowest percentage of infections, increasing to yellow and then red, with the highest — which is the current status statewide.
Under the state’s pandemic public health mandates, as long as New Mexico hovers in the red zone, churches may not have in-person services that exceed 25% of the fire marshal’s rated occupancy for that space.
In April, Legacy Church filed a lawsuit against then-New Mexico Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel and the state of New Mexico, maintaining that the public health orders violated the church’s religious freedoms.
U.S. District Judge James O. Browning in July handed down a ruling in that lawsuit, saying the state has the right to ban large gatherings in houses of worship during a public health crisis, and that the public health orders neither violated the church’s free exercise rights nor its assembly clause rights.
Further, Browning ruled, that 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.”