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Legacy Church Sues State After Governor Bans Mass Gatherings In Houses Of Worship

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An Albuquerque church with thousands of members, Legacy Church, is suing the state of New Mexico over a public health order church leaders say violates first amendment protections. The lawsuit comes after Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham said on Saturday that houses of worship are no longer exempt from a rule  limiting gatherings to five people. KUNM spoke with Legacy Church Pastor Daniel McCabe about what he hopes to get out of the lawsuit.

DANIEL McCABE: Here's what we're not suing for, because people, you know, people commenting all over the place are a little confused. We're not suing for money. That's not what it's about. We are not suing to mass gather ­– we're not suing to bring our congregation back the way it was a month ago. What we are suing for is because of what the governor did Saturday evening, putting out a new order. And basically, we cannot bring more than five people into the campus, into the sanctuary, to even do our services to livestream. So, we have filed suit so that we can bring in the number of people that we need to conduct our services for the livestream. We're also suing so that every church in the state of New Mexico would have the same rights as the box stores such as Home Depot has, and that they'd be able to use 20% of their capacity if they chose to do so.

KUNM: Twenty percent capacity for worship, or for assisting in the live streaming?

McCABE: For worship. So, we wouldn't make that choice. We wouldn't choose to do that; if we did, we could probably put 600 people or so in our large auditorium at one of our campuses. But there are plenty of other churches in the state – we've been contacted by many of them ­­­– that are thankful. So, we're saying they should at least have the same right that a box store has to bring in 20%, and fill up 20% of their facility if they want to, and have service.

KUNM:  If other religious faiths can adhere to the social distancing guidelines, and aren't necessarily asking for the same exemption that box stores are getting, what makes organizations like Legacy and others any different?

McCABE: I'm sure all sorts of different organizations, churches, other faiths, can make their own decision, but we believe what the First Amendment says: that there shouldn't be laws made against religion. So, if a box store is going to be allowed to have 20%, why wouldn't you allow a church to have 20%? If we are, and we are, adhering to social distancing rules and policies to do our livestream, then why not be allowed to have that number of people in the room, in the auditorium, in the video room? You know, it's not like the governor made this order a week before Easter. She literally made it on the eve of Easter. We had service that Saturday night that we always have, just a few a few minutes after her order went down, and had no idea. There was no contacting churches by the governor letting us know this was coming down, no opportunity to change anything. I mean, this order literally went out hours before – or minutes even before our Saturday night ­– but hours before Easter service for churches across the state.

KUNM: I understand the timing of the order and how it disrupted your operations. But, back to the comparison with box stores, such as Home Depot... your services, they aren't 15, 20 minutes, maybe a half hour, they're quite a long service. People are only in box stores for a short amount of time. They're there to get what they need and then they leave.

McCABE: I don't know, I was at Walmart earlier today, and by the time I got the things that I needed, stood in line, checked out, I was there for 45 or 50 minutes ­– and I didn't even get things for the entire week for my family. So, our services are under an hour. So, I'm not sure. Yeah, I'm not sure I agree with you on that one.

KUNM: So, what's the next step?

McCABE: For the court case, there's a hearing on Thursday. So that's the next step in that situation, our attorneys are handling that. And then we'll just kind of let that continue to play out its course how it needs to.

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Edited by KUNM’s Nash Jones.

This is an excerpt from a longer interview that originally aired on our show Your NM Government. Catch it every weeknight at 7:30 p.m. on KUNM, or find it wherever you get your podcasts. Your NM Government is a collaboration between KUNM, New Mexico PBS and the Santa Fe Reporter.

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