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Apr. 24—SANTA FE — New Mexico health officials removed pandemic-related capacity limits on churches and other houses of worship on Friday, backing away from a potential legal fight.
The revised public health order issued by Health Secretary Tracie Collins allows churches to hold indoor services at 100% capacity starting immediately, regardless of the color-coded risk level of their county, though it still "strongly encourages" reduced capacity levels.
At least some religious leaders said they would continue to voluntarily limit the number of worshippers allowed for in-person services — at least for the time being.
Archbishop John Wester directed pastors within the Catholic Church's Archdiocese of Santa Fe to stick with the state's color-coded capacity restrictions and not allow 100% capacity at indoor Masses.
"It is of paramount importance to remember that the church values everyone's safety and well-being," Wester said in a Friday statement. "Life is sacred and we are taking every precaution to protect our people from the coronavirus."
And Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld of Albuquerque's Congregation Albert said the synagogue would continue with fully virtual services until Bernalillo County moves to the "green" or "turquoise" level under the state's color-coded system for COVID-19 risk.
"We're going to stick with that plan for now," Rosenfeld told the Journal, citing a recent increase in virus cases around New Mexico.
Until Friday, houses of worship had faced capacity restrictions that largely matched business restrictions, with churches allowed to hold indoor services at 75% capacity in counties classified in the least restrictive "turquoise" level and at 25% in the most restrictive "red" level.
Churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious centers in counties located in the "green" and "yellow" levels — indicating a moderate risk of virus spread — had faced capacity limits that fell between those two bookends.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said the change to the health order was made in light of recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings that blocked capacity limits for churches in New York and Colorado that were more restrictive than business restrictions.
In its November order, the Supreme Court acknowledged the public health concerns posed by the pandemic, but said restrictions that barred many from attending religious services in person struck at the "very heart" of the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of religious liberty.
The revised New Mexico public health order issued Friday keeps intact a statewide face mask mandate for public settings, except when eating or drinking. It runs through May 21 and also leaves in place business capacity restrictions.
There have already been several legal skirmishes over virus-related restrictions on church attendance in New Mexico.
In April 2020, just weeks into the pandemic, Legacy Church filed a lawsuit against the state alleging the state's health orders violated its religious freedoms.
But a federal judge rejected the argument last summer, saying in a ruling the state had the right to ban large gatherings during a public health crisis and that doing so did not violate the church's rights.
Then, in December, the state Department of Health issued $5,000 fines to Legacy Church and another megachurch — Calvary Church — for violating the state's public health order after pictures circulated of Christmas Eve services with large crowds of parishioners, few wearing face masks.
In a video posted Friday on the church's website, Pastor Skip Heitzig of Calvary Church invited congregants to attend services this weekend and said the church would encourage virus-safe practices, though he did not specifically mention voluntary capacity limits.
"We've been waiting a long time to hear this great news," Heitzig said.
The Governor's Office, which previously accused the megachurches of violating both the state's health orders and common sense after its Christmas Eve services, urged religious leaders to voluntarily enforce restrictions despite the revised health order.
Specifically, Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said houses of worship are "strongly encouraged to protect their congregants and communities by enacting social distancing measures to bolster public health and minimize risk of viral spread of their own accord."
Death toll tops 4,000
The change to New Mexico's public health order comes at a time when more than 41% of state residents are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
State data also shows 58.1% of New Mexicans have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
In addition, a total of 177,623 individuals — or roughly 8.5% of the state's population — have tested positive for the virus, but made a full recovery.
Meanwhile, the number of New Mexico deaths related to COVID-19 increased to 4,024 on Friday with the passing of a Bernalillo County man, according to the Department of Health.
While the state's death rate has decreased significantly from its mid-December peak, 23 individuals have died due to the virus in the past week.