New Mexico governor says churches can reopen at 25% capacity

CNA Staff, May 18, 2020 / 10:30 am (CNA).- New Mexico has agreed to apply the same reopening criteria to churches as it does to retail businesses, after the governor issued updated safety regulations for the coronavirus pandemic.

“Great news out of New Mexico in a religious freedom case: The state told a federal judge that it will now allow houses of worship to have same percentage of people attend worship services that can attend all [state] retailers,” Montse Alvarado, vice president and executive director at Becket, tweeted on Saturday.

Becket filed an amicus brief in the case of Albuquerque’s Legacy Church against the state’s public health order.

New Mexico Governor Lujan Grisham closed non-essential businesses on March 24 and banned “mass gatherings” of five or more people in the state. Churches were initially exempt from the ban, although the state’s Catholic dioceses stopped public Masses by the end of March to help curb the spread of the virus.

On Holy Saturday, April 11, Grisham extended the ban on “mass gatherings” to include houses of worship.

On April 15, Bishop Peter Baldacchino announced that the diocese of Las Cruces would resume public Masses—the first U.S. Catholic diocese to reopen Masses during the pandemic. He allowed for Masses to be offered outdoors with attendees spaced more than six feet apart, or inside churches with fewer than five people present.

Baldacchino was also one of four bishops to discuss the reopening of churches during the pandemic with officials at the White House and U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) on April 28 and 29.

Legacy Church in Albuquerque sued over the state’s April 11 policy, saying that more than five people would be required at the church to live-stream services and hold in-person services.

On May 13, Gov. Grisham allowed some retail businesses in the state to reopen at 25% capacity but churches were held to a 10% capacity for religious services and meetings.

Legacy Church pressed the state on the matter, saying that small groups such as Bible studies and addiction support groups could not meet at the church under the order’s restrictions.

On Saturday, the state further modified its public health emergency restrictions, allowing churches to open their doors to liturgies and gatherings at 25% capacity—on the same level as many retail businesses.

“As recently as yesterday, the state said that churches could only have 10% occupancy—less than half what the non-essential businesses get,” Alvarado said via Twitter. The state “ultimately relented, instead of having to explain another First Amendment problem in Court.”

The case was one of many filed by churches around the country against state or local public health restrictions on religious gatherings.

Attorney General William Barr has said that states have the authority to restrict liberties temporarily, during a public health emergency.

However, restrictions must be applied even-handedly and cannot “single out” churches for burdens that businesses such as “movie theaters, restaurants, concert halls, and other comparable places of assembly” are not subject to, he said in an April 14 statement.

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