Ahead of its 2020 Ministers Conference, set to kick off October 5, Andrew Wommack Ministries International (AWMI) enlisted the help of Liberty Counsel to sue Colorado’s governor and health departments. The ministry argues the state’s 175-person limit on indoor religious gatherings is “arbitrarily imposed” and discriminatory, especially when large-scale protests have been permitted.
On September 29, U.S. District Judge Christine Arguello declined to grant AWMI an exemption, writing, “Numerous courts have considered, and persuasively rejected, nearly identical arguments.” Liberty then filed an appeal with the Tenth Circuit.
AWMI Requests an Emergency Injunction
Mat Staver, founder and chairman of the Orlando-based nonprofit Liberty Counsel, tells ChurchLeaders a decision about holding next week’s Ministers Conference will be made “as we get closer” to the start date. He expects a quick ruling on Liberty’s request for an emergency injunction, saying the appeal was essential because AWMI has several other conferences planned for upcoming months.
AWMI’s Ministers Conference, held at its Woodland Park headquarters, draws attendees from outside the community. Attendance also is required for the approximately 650 students currently enrolled at the ministry’s Charis Bible College. Its facilities can seat 5,000, including 3,100 in a main auditorium.
An Ongoing Battle
This summer, AWMI fought a cease-and-desist order, saying its First Amendment rights were being violated. The ministry held a Bible conference and an Independence Day celebration, which local officials later blamed for causing a COVID-19 outbreak. AWMI, which detailed a range of safety and sanitizing precautions being practiced, disputed their inclusion on Colorado’s “outbreak list.”
In this week’s lawsuit, AWMI claims Gov. Jared Polis’ crowd-size limits “interfere with and place a cloud of potential criminal and civil legal action” over its conference and attendees. Racial-justice protesters, meanwhile, face no such limits or threats but are “explicitly commended…as exemplars of First Amendment activity” by Polis.
Liberty’s Staver says Colorado’s governor “has clearly discriminated against religious gatherings” because “the distinction between religious and nonreligious gatherings has nothing to do with health and safety.” He adds, “There is no pandemic pause button to the Constitution, nor is there an exception for religious gatherings.”
Advocating for Religious Liberty
Staver expresses willingness to take AWMI’s latest fight all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary, saying the case is “far from over.” Predicting the outcome is difficult, he tells ChurchLeaders. “We’re currently in litigation in federal courts in six different states,” he says: California, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, and Virginia.
While some states have loosened pandemic-related restrictions, Staver says the ones listed above remain “strict” with limits on religious gatherings. They also tend to be Democratic-led and have allowed protesters to assemble without wearing masks, he says.
Earlier this year, when AWMI was fighting the cease-and-desist order, evangelist Andrew Wommack said he’s “concerned about the virus and protecting people” but that his staff takes “every precaution—more precautions, certainly, than what they’ve had at these protests.”
Similar court battles have had mixed results. In Kentucky, Maryville Baptist Church received favorable rulings and continues to seek a permanent injunction. But South Bay United Pentecostal Church in California lost a Supreme Court fight in May, when justices rejected a challenge to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s shutdown orders.