Updated: April 16, 2020 05:21 PM
Created: April 16, 2020 05:01 PM
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.- An Albuquerque church made arguments in federal court Thursday, asking a judge to throw out the governor's ban on mass gatherings in places of worship.
On Saturday, just before Easter, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham expanded the existing order that bans mass gatherings of more than five people to include churches. It's intended to help curb the spread of COVID-19 amid a global pandemic.
"I think what's at stake is our religious freedoms," said pastor Steve Smotherman of Legacy Church.
He added: "When the state talks about mass gatherings and commercial gatherings, they're trying to distinguish but when I go to Home Depot, I go to Walmart, I go to Smith's, there is mass gatherings, and people aren't six feet apart at times," said Smotherman.
On Wednesday, during a press conference, the governor addressed the expansion of the ban to include churches.
"We did that because we had more than a handful of churches who were going to have Easter services and knowing the risk that poses to all of our communities and our healthcare workers,k we made that an explicit prohibition," said Lujan Grisham.
Following the governor's expanded order, Legacy Church filed a federal lawsuit against the state.
Smotherman claims the government does not have the right to determine what's essential to produce his religious-based services.
"My goal is not to put people in danger, it's only to have the right to do what we do -- and we're doing the online streaming, but we have to have the freedom to do it the way that we normally do church," said Smotherman.
On Easter Sunday, Legacy church utilized approximately 30 staff members on-site to produce the online service, including a worship team, band and technical staff.
Smotherman also said the church allowed a limited number of people physically inside to attend the service, despite the governor's order.
"I think we had like three services on Easter Sunday and I think the first one--maybe 40 [parishoners], the second one was 10, the third was like seven," he said. "It's not a lot of people when you look at a sanctuary that's over 2,500 seats, so it was very few."
He added: "They want to be in a service because they don't really have the online streaming, or they don't know how."
However, attorneys for the governor argued in court that Legacy Church does not have the right to expose the community to possible disease.
In its court filing, the state said "such large public gatherings, even at just one church, have significant potential to lead to an outbreak of COVID-19 affecting thousands of people, causing more deaths..."
A judge is expected to issue an opinion on a possible temporary restraining order by Friday afternoon.
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