Videos and photos taken at Albuquerque’s Legacy Church and Calvary Church went viral on social media shortly after the holiday, showing hundreds of parishioners in close proximity, with many not wearing masks.
State regulations require that religious services held in red-zone counties — those with the highest percentage of COVID-19 infections — be limited to 25% capacity, and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued a statewide mask mandate in May.
The state’s designation system also includes green and yellow tiers to note lower infection rates.
Currently, all of New Mexico is designated a red zone, as cases spike nationwide. Data from the New Mexico Department of Health shows more than 141,186 confirmed cases in the state, with more than 2,436 deaths. On Wednesday, the state announced 1,316 additional cases and 33 deaths.
In addition to fines against the two churches, “other remedies against the same conduct” will be used, a health official said in a statement that didn’t specify what they might be. The houses of worship may request a hearing to contest the penalties.
Legacy Church previously pushed back against the state’s government and then-Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel in April, arguing that public health orders trampled religious freedoms. The argument proved unsuccessful in court.
U.S. District Judge James O. Browning found in July that the state’s orders were “unrelated to the suppression of speech or religion, serve a compelling state interest, and significantly less restrictive alternatives are not available.”
A statement on Legacy Church’s website says that its offices are now closed to public entry due to “persecution” by Grisham.
The church told NBC News that it had taken the pandemic seriously, but “when governments exceed their constitutional authority and contradict what we are called on by God to do, we answer first to His authority.”
“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,” Legacy said.
Calvary Church, meanwhile, is attempting to confirm that it maintained compliance with capacity restrictions, Chief Pastoral Officer Neil Ortiz told Fox News. The institution labored dutifully and went to “great expense” to implement proper safety measures and precautions, he added.
To that end, the majority of people attending Christmas Eve services wore a mask as they entered the facility, he said. The church also passed out masks, assuming that people who refused them had a “preexisting health condition or other restriction that prohibited them’ from wearing one.
Nevertheless, Ortiz explained that Calvary “chose not to break fellowship with any worshiper by requiring them to leave the gathering of their church family” on one of the holiest days on the Christian calendar.
“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,” he said.
“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,” Ortiz concluded.
KOB-TV, an NBC affiliate in Albuquerque, reported that two former members of the congregation alleged church leaders had been guilting members into attending in-person services.
The governor, meanwhile, told NBC News that the churches and their leaders endangered the lives of their entire communities.
“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 said. “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.”
Neither Legacy Church nor the governor’s office immediately responded to messages from Fox News seeking comment.