Two megachurches in Albuquerque, New Mexico, are among the latest in the U.S. to incur penalties for disregarding state COVID-19 restrictions. Calvary Church and Legacy Church are facing fines of $10,000 each for services they held over the Christmas holiday.
“We have taken the pandemic seriously from the start, and have prudent measures in place,” said Legacy Church in a statement about a service it held on Christmas Day. “But when governments exceed their constitutional authority and contradict what we are called on by God to do, we answer first to His authority.”
Videos and images posted online show hundreds of people gathered at Legacy Church and Calvary Church, respectively, to celebrate Christmas. The attendees do not appear to be observing social distancing, and most are not wearing masks. The New Mexico Public Health Department has fined each church $5,000 for breaking the mask mandate and another $5,000 for exceeding the 25 percent attendance limit on houses of worship.
A statement issued by the governor’s office says the churches have “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.” As of this writing, New Mexico has recorded 139,875 positive cases of COVID-19 and 2,403 deaths from the virus. The statement goes on to say, “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.”
Critics of the Albuquerque churches say that the state’s fines pale in comparison with the bailout money that the churches received from the government or even how much an emergency room visit would cost an individual.
Calvary, Legacy Church Defend Their Actions
In a lengthy statement about its Christmas Eve service, 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.
The church explained that it had seated attendees in every other row in the auditorium and encouraged worshipers to follow safety precautions, including sanitizing, practicing social distancing, and wearing masks. Calvary provided overflow seating in rooms outside the main auditoriums “in order to maintain acceptable spacing,” and it also broadcast the service on a screen outside the building for those who wished to worship outdoors.
“Church staff was diligent to monitor allowable percentages,” said the church, “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,” the church continued, “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.”
In an additional statement, Legacy Church 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.