ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Health officials in New Mexico have fined two churches in Albuquerque for violating the state’s public health orders aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19 after both venues held large gatherings for Christmas.
The state Department of Health fined Legacy Church and Calvary Church $5,000 each on Monday after photos and video showed both churches violated orders limiting occupancy, mandating masks and practicing social distancing.
Legacy Church officials accused the state of trampling on their constitutional rights.
“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,” the church said in a statement.
Calvary Church’s Chief Pastoral Officer Neil Oritz said it has “experienced a significant attendance on one of the most celebrated and sacred days of our Christian faith.” In response to the gathering, the church “chose not to break fellowship with any worshiper by requiring them to leave the gathering of their church family.”
Ortiz said the church continued to urge people to follow guidelines, blocked every other row to practice social distancing, provided outdoor seating and gave masks to guests who were not wearing one.
Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, said the leaders and congregation at the two churches violated state regulations.
“They 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.”
More than 138,000 residents have tested positive for COVID-19 and 2,380 have died as of Monday, health officials said.
The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.