Two megachurches in Albuquerque, New Mexico, drew flak for violating public health orders and hosting Christmas Eve services that witnessed an indoor gathering of hundreds of congregants. Videos and pictures that were widely circulated showed congregants — most of them without masks — gathered at Legacy Church and Calvary Church holding candles during the services.
The incident came to light after the churches posted videos of the services on their social media accounts. The videos were pulled down after intense backlash. However, some netizens saved the videos posted it on Reddit.
The viral videos prompted state Health Department to send notices of "contemplated action" to the churches and fined them up to $10,000 for not following the 25 percent capacity in houses of worship and violating the state's mask mandate. Authorities also said they were considering "other remedies" to prevent them from holding such gatherings to curb the Covid-19 spread.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's spokesperson, Tripp Stelnicki, called the church services illegal and "selfish gatherings" that defy "common sense."
"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," Stelnecki told the Albuquerque Journal newspaper.
However, Legacy Church officials defended its actions and accused the state government of violating 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.
Legacy Church also posted a note on its website taking a jibe at the state government. "Due to persecution by the state of New Mexico and the governor's office, our offices are closed to the public. Entry by appointment only," it said.
Calvary Church defended the gathering saying they asked its congregant to maintain safe social distance. In a statement released to ABC affiliate KOAT, the church said they "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," the church said.
On Tuesday, 1,221 new confirmed cases of Covid-19 and additional 23 deaths were reported in New Mexico. So far, the number of cases stood at 139,875 with 2,403 deaths.