Jul 14, 2020

A U.S. District Court in New Mexico last night rejected an Albuquerque-area megachurch’s request for a religious exemption to New Mexico public health orders that temporarily limit both religious and secular gatherings – measures enacted to protect people from the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

In his opinion that also dismissed Legacy Church’s lawsuit, U.S. District Judge James O. Browning extensively referenced the amicus brief filed in the case by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which argued that it is not only permissible for New Mexico to include houses of worship and religious services in the temporary ban of large, in-person gatherings, but it would be unconstitutional to completely exempt religious gatherings from the orders. Judge Browning’s opinion also cited the oral argument presented Friday by AU Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser.

Luchenitser offered the following comment in response to the court’s opinion:

“New Mexico’s public health orders do not violate religious freedom; they ensure that religious freedom is not misused to endanger people’s lives. Public health experts have learned during the course of this pandemic that COVID-19 spreads easily at large indoor gatherings – including religious services. Secretary Kunkel’s orders protect public health while respecting the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom by ensuring that some New Mexicans’ religious practices are not offered special privileges that could jeopardize the health of others in the community.” 

In addition to the amicus brief filed in this case, Legacy Church v. Kunkel, Americans United has filed more than two dozen amicus briefs in similar cases across the country, urging courts to protect both public health and religious freedom by treating secular and religious gatherings equally.

Americans United is a religious freedom advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the nonprofit organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.