After publication of its initial report, NBC News revised their article to attribute the “illegal and selfish” quote to the governor’s director of communications, rather than the governor herself, as originally reported. This article and its title have been updated to reflect that revision.
Two New Mexico megachurches are facing $10,000 in fines for having held large, unmasked Christmas Eve services in violation of the state’s COVID-19 lockdown orders, prompting Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office to imply that their pastors are “pro-virus.”
Legacy Church and Calvary Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico, posted video and photos on social media of their services that went viral, according to local ABC affiliate KOAT. The images depicted hundreds of congregants gathered, mostly without masks.
Grisham instituted restrictions on Dec. 15 that limit church gatherings in “red counties” to 25% capacity and require masks.
The state’s Public Health Department responded by levying a $10,000 fine against both churches — $5,000 for violating the capacity limit and $5,000 for violating the mask mandate. The churches are permitted to request a hearing to contest the fines.
Grisham’s communications director, Tripp Stelnicki, strongly condemned both the churches and their pastors, telling NBC News, “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 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,” Grisham’s communications director continued. “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.”
New Mexico has confirmed 141,186 COVID-19 cases and 2,436 fatalities, according to state data.
Legacy Church, whose lawsuit against the state was dismissed in July, said in a statement to KOAT, “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.”
Legacy, who are calling their services “peaceful protests,” also said:
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.
In a statement to city station KOB 4, Calvary Church said:
Calvary Church experienced significant attendance at our in-person Christmas Eve services on one of the most celebrated and sacred days of our Christian faith. In response to this outpouring, 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.
We acknowledge that some will disagree with our decisions, and we respect their freedom to believe differently. We do care about people’s physical health, and we take great precautions such as those mentioned above. 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 strong showing in attendance at Christmas Eve services 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. We believe our collective ability to maintain differences as fellow citizens regarding the questions raised are an essential part of our national heritage.”
Related: L.A. County Lifts Ban On Indoor Worship ‘To Align With Recent Supreme Court Rulings’