Churches holding indoor services have become a hot spot for COVID-19 outbreaks, and in Colorado, a weeklong Bible conference prompted a cease-and-desist order from the Attorney General for violating public health orders.
The cease-and-desist order on July 2 went to to Andrew Wommack Ministries of Woodland Park, attempting to shut down the ministry's Summer Family Bible Conference.
The ministry's attorneys, Liberty Counsel of Lynchburg, Virginia, responded that they believed the ministry complied with public health orders in Teller County on everything except for the county's limit of 175 people for an indoor gathering. That limitation violates the ministry's First Amendment rights, the attorneys said.
The public health order issued by Gov. Jared Polis and the Colorado Department of Public Health allows for events of up to 175 people, under variances granted to counties, and so long as social distancing can be maintained. Gabi Johnson of CDPHE confirmed that that variance granted to Teller County was for that limit, and that the conference violated that limit.
Liberty attorney Richard Mast had a different interpretation, that Wommack Ministries could hold events for up to 50% capacity of the venue's auditorium. Before this year’s conference began on June 29, the ministry estimated that 1,000 people would be on site at its headquarters in Woodland Park. The conference was scheduled to conclude on July 3.
The auditorium on the 336-acre campus, which also houses Wommack’s Charis Bible College, can seat more than 3,000, which “allows for safe social distancing,” said ministry spokeswoman Eileen Quinn prior to the event.
The July 2 cease-and-desist, issued the day before the end of the conference, said that indoor venues could hold up to 100 people, but that counties could seek a variance. Teller County has been granted two such variances, the Attorney General's letter said. An event of more than 175 people would violate the public health order.
"If that is the case, you are directed to immediately cease hosting events that violate the terms of the executive order, the public health order, and the approved Teller County variance" or bring those events into compliance. This applies to the conference as well as to any post-conference activities, the letter said.
Immediate compliance is compulsory, and further non-compliance would result in a temporary restraining order. Wommack Ministries has scheduled anotherevent at Charis for August 11-15. Johnson said Tuesday that the CDPHE will "focus on voluntary compliance, and we are hopeful that will occur in this case. We will monitor the situation and evaluate our legal options, which can include further enforcement of the cease and desist through a court proceeding."
The delay of the cease-and-desist until July 2 was due to the need to fully investigate, CDPHE's Johnson said. "When we received reports the conference had at least 300 people indoors, we needed to confirm the reports, gather additional information and speak with Teller County Public Health officials. In addition, we received information about an even larger gathering planned for July 4, as well as other upcoming events that were expected to draw crowd sizes prohibited by the public health order.
"We support religious communities coming together in fellowship, but we must all do this safely," she added.
In his response, Mast said they were surprised by the cease-and-desist letter, given that they had been working closely with Teller County on the event at 50% capacity. However, Teller County's public health website said they do not review private events on private property, and the public health application process links to the public health order Wommack is accused of violating.
Mast wrote that they planned to limit attendance to 50% of the capacity of the 3,500-seat worship center, and has limited that attendance to far below the 50%, along with social distancing and other guidelines, including sanitation, traffic patterns and other mitigation efforts as set forth in a plan submitted to Teller County Public Health.
"A 50% capacity worship gathering satisfies the State of Colorado's interest in public health without unduly burdening" the ministry's First Amendment rights, Mast wrote.
He cited Polis' most recent amended executive order on gatherings, which limits those events to 10 people or less, "except for purposes expressly permitted in this PHO (public health order), which include Necessary Activities." Mast said "Necessary Activities" does not explicitly include First Amendment-protected activities such as recent Black Lives Matter protests in Denver. Gatherings of thousands, with no social distancing and with not everyone wearing masks, have been permitted and even encouraged by the governor, he said.
Mast cited a recent Black Lives Matter protest led by Denver Broncos players, and said no cease-and-desist had been issued to the Denver Broncos to block that protest. Mast also pointed out that courts in other states have prohibited restrictions tied to COVID-19 for religious worship.
Strict enforcement of events limiting churches and religious meeting attendance to 50% capacity or 175 people, whichever is less, "while encouraging mass protests of tens of thousands, is discriminatory and unlawful," Mast wrote.
The annual Summer Family Bible Conference was the first large event the campus hosted since the pandemic began. Charis Bible College closed in March, and graduates participated in a drive-in and curbside ceremony in May.
Numerous other events have been canceled or moved to online only over the past three months, including a Truth and Liberty Coalition Conference, a conference for ministers, a Campus Days orientation for new students and an original musical production, “God With Us.”
In speaking with the Colorado Springs Gazette in March after the pandemic began spreading, Andrew Wommack, a Christian televangelist who defines himself as a Bible teacher, said his main message was to “not panic” but “to believe.”
“God’s Word promises that faith overcomes anything circumstances can throw at us,” he said. “However, just because we operate in faith doesn’t mean we don’t use wisdom and follow the guidelines the health professionals are giving.”
While Wommack said he didn’t believe he was immune to the virus, he said that he’s “tested positive for faith,” which he believes “keeps you healthy through any crisis.”
Churches around the nation holding services have become vectors for community spread of COVID-19, although Colorado does not list any places of worship in its outbreak data. The largest outbreak in Oregon — 236 positive cases — is tied to a rural church in Union County, Oregon. Five outbreaks have been reported at churches in West Virginia; and in Washington state, a choir practice of 60 resulted in 45 positive cases, three hospitalized and two deaths. Infection Control Today reported in April that churches could be the deadliest places for the pandemic.
Debbie Kelley of the Colorado Springs Gazette contributed to this story.
This story has been updated to correct the location of Wommack Ministries.
Correction: Liberty Counsel's attorney was misidentified in a previous version.