State fines churches for violation of Public Health Order

Albuquerque News

Each church will be fined $10,000: $5,000 for violating the public health order and $5,000 for not wearing masks

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – The New Mexico Department of Health intends to fine Calvary Church and Legacy Church after videos surfaced of the churches holding mass gatherings during their Christmas Eve services. The videos showed crowded rooms with hundreds of congregants standing close to each other, many without masks.

In notices addressed to both Calvary Church and Legacy Church, the Department of Health issues a $5,000 fine for the violation of the Public Health Order and a $5,000 fine for violating the COVID Safe Practices by failing to wear masks or face coverings. While the Public Health Order allows houses of worship in red level counties to hold religious services indoors and outdoors, it requires that they not exceed 25% of the maximum occupancy of any enclosed space on the premises.

The notice goes on to state that the churches may request an administrative evidentiary hearing to contest the action. Calvary states that its leadership team and staff have made a continuous effort to implement the Public Health Order. Calvary Church provided the following statement in part to KRQE News 13:

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.  Church staff provided masks for those who did not have one.  We observed the majority of those attending services wore a mask as they entered.  If a person refused to wear a mask, we assumed they had a preexisting health condition or other restriction that prohibited them from doing so. 

Neil Ortiz, Chief Pastoral Office of Calvary Church

Legacy Church provided the following statement:

It’s tragic that what we do for thousands of shut-ins, those in despair, and kids who go without meals gets no state notice, but fixation on one service can net us large fines.  The state should fold its losing hand against Churches as Colorado has, focus on the truly vulnerable, and recognize what the US Supreme Court has recently said about Churches because we must continue to do what we are called to.

The Governor’s Office also responded to the church’s violations with the following statement:

In violating both the state public health order and common sense, these two churches and their leaders 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. We know so many New Mexicans have been appalled by the news coverage of their gatherings, particularly the Channel 13 story, because we all wish we could gather safely with our loved ones, friends, communities. But we know better, and we care about our neighbors, and New Mexicans are trying our hardest to keep our loved ones and families and communities safe from harm. We all wish this pandemic were over, but it’s not, and no pro-virus pastor may deem it so. So many New Mexicans have sacrificed — and lost — so much in this pandemic. These illegal and selfish gatherings will directly contribute to more suffering and illness in our state. These church leaders should reflect on the danger they’ve unleashed in their communities.

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