When the Supreme Court ruled against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on November 25 and held that officials cannot impose COVID-related meeting restrictions on “non-essential” churches, while leaving “essential” places like Walmart, grocery stores, and the corner bar free to operate without restraint, there was little room for misunderstanding the justices’ meaning.
As Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Andrew Cuomo, Governor of New York, “that is exactly the kind of discrimination the First Amendment forbids.” In other words, the Court’s answer for state and local officials who want to discriminate against churches is a resounding “No!”
But it appears public health officials in New Mexico either have yet to get the word or have chosen to ignore the Supreme Court. New Mexico officials fined Calvary Church and Legacy Church, both located in Albuquerque, for allegedly violating public health regulations when the two congregations met for Christmas Eve services.
Both congregations now face $10,000 fines because, according to the New Mexico Department of Public Health, their churches are located in the state’s “red zone” for COVID-19 infections, therefore they should have limited attendance to no more than 25 percent of building capacity during their Christmas Eve services.
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Officials with Legacy Church who defied the regulation told the Christian Post they did so because, “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.”
Similarly, Calvary Church released a lengthy statement explaining, “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.”
Legacy Church Senior Pastor Steve Smotherman has been a bold critic of state officials’ anti-COVID regulations, tweeting on November 19 that, “None of the shut downs and mandates have worked. Now this Governor and others are doubling down on failure. How long do we put up with these politicians who are destroying people’s liberty. The constitution is the law of the land!!!”
More recently, Smotherman tweeted on November 26 that “The reason so many people are suffering right now is because of idiotic decisions governors have made. They shut down businesses, put people out of work, Locked them down. That’s why people are suffering. Terrible leadership at [the] state level!”
Not only do New Mexico officials appear unaware of the high Court’s Thanksgiving decision, they seem not to know about the justices’ rulings shortly thereafter against similar kinds of anti-COVID restrictions imposed by Colorado and New Jersey. Check out this column’s previous discussions of these issues and decisions here and here.
A much better outcome for local congregations in Ohio deserves attention here, too. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit granted a temporary reprieve pending appeal to Monclova Christian Academy.
As a result, the school, which is part of the Toledo-area Monclova Road Baptist Church, can resume in-person classroom meetings. The gatherings had previously been banned by the Toledo Public Health Department, which closed all schools, public and private, grades 7-12.
But gyms, a large casino in the county, tanning salons, and other “essential” businesses were not shut down.
The Sixth Circuit specifically cited the Catholic Diocese decision in accepting the school’s request for a temporary injunction against enforcement, noting that school officials observed “strict social distancing and hygiene standards.” The decision further observed that “little in-school transmission has been documented.”
Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver issued a jubilant statement following the decision, saying, “Providing religious education is a core part of the religious freedom protected by the First Amendment, and the Toledo County Health Department’s resolution plainly burdens such freedom. This is another win for religious freedom as a result of the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of synagogues and churches.”
Indeed it is. Now, are officials in New Mexico listening?