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Otero pastors request exemptions to public health restrictions

Christian Burney
Fowler Tribune

Two pastors appealed to Otero County commissioners at the Nov. 16 Board of County Commissioners meeting to ask the county to follow El Paso and other Colorado counties in making exemptions on COVID-19 restrictions and guidelines as they relate to houses of worship and religious institutions.

The pastors claimed that public health restrictions on gatherings at religious houses of worship were unconstitutional and implied that commissioners were not living up to the duties of their elected offices by not pressing the issue harder.

Pastors Steve Anderson of Faith Baptist Church and Darryl Johnson of Life Assembly of God, both of Fowler, attended the public board meeting to express their concerns.

"There's been some abdication of responsibility, given in charge to an unelected official, to manage affairs which are impacting our lives as citizens, my role as pastor ... and of course being present to my neighbors and community members, impacting their lives and livelihoods," Anderson told commissioners.

Anderson told the La Junta Tribune-Democrat that he doesn't like that the commissioners, who are elected officials, are delegating the county's COVID-19 response efforts to Crowley/Otero Health Director Rick Ritter, who is an unelected official.

"I just felt that this is something that is so impactful that there ought be immediate accountability to elected officials rather than somebody who is in an unelected position," said Anderson.

The pastor's request was two-fold: that county commissioners assume overseeing control of public health guidelines and restrictions and that the county pursue available avenues to obtain a countywide public health restrictions exemption for houses of worship.

Local public health and COVID-19 measures are directed by Ritter, who works with state public health officials in the capacity of his COVID-19 public health duties and state guidelines determine the COVID-19 dial status (Safer at Home, Stay at Home, and the various levels in between) based on case rates for each county.

"In that request there is a secondary request, which would be to follow (other counties in Colorado, such as El Paso) to exempt churches from the restrictions on gathering sizes," Anderson said. "(El Paso) moved to Level Orange, which we moved to recently.

Otero County has since slid further on the dial from Level Orange to Level Red (severe). At Level Red — one level before the strictest Stay at Home orders are enforced at Level Purple — counties cannot request new variance changes and any current variances to public health restrictions are reviewed and subject to possible tweaks or reversion.

"What they're doing is making criminals out of businesses and pastors," Anderson said. He said as a pastor he has no interest in doing anything illegal, but he urged commissioners to consider the separation of church and state that has been observed throughout the country's history.

"They did (separation of church and state) because of religious persecution," Anderson said.

Pastor Darryl Johnson of the Life Assembly of God in Fowler said houses of worship have historically had exemptions from the controls of government. 

"You see it in hiring practices ... you see it in tax exemptions. Houses of worship have had complete exemption from the controls of government."

The Establishment Clause in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

In October, the Denver Post reported that U.S. District Court Judge Daniel Domenico ruled that state officials can't enforce mask mandates and some in-person capacity limits for gatherings at two churches, the Denver Bible Church in Wheat Ridge and Community Baptist Church in Brighton.

The federal judge threw out most of the churches' claims but recognized that houses of worship should be exempt from mask use requirements if those requirements violate or interfere with their religious activities in addition to some limits on indoor gatherings that aren't applicable to secular entities.

Johnson described himself and Anderson as "purveyors of truth" before claiming that the number of COVID-19 deaths as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are exaggerated and that the virus is not as volatile or prevalent as Americans have been led to believe.

"I think that a case could be made that much of coronavirus, we've been lied to, and we don't know if we're being lied to right now," Johnson said.

"We deserve exemption that God has granted and that our country has granted. I would urge the county to do whatever we can to recognize this very unique division that churches have. By the way, even though the numbers are up, the numbers are up because the testing is up. You can't even get a test, the lines are so long."

Anderson said his request is not meant to downplay the dangers of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. He said members of his family have caught the disease and that one has already died from it.

"My wife has had COVID. Four of her family currently living in another state have COVID. Her dad is a cancer patient and a diabetic and really struggling with pneumonia right now. ... At 10:30 this morning, my uncle, who was living in a veterans home because of other illness, passed away this morning from COVID-19. Our requests are not (blind) to potential danger to various members of our society."

The commissioners thanked them for their input before moving onto other agenda items but did not indicate whether they would do as requested to seek local exemptions for houses of worship.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of two religious organizations who challenged New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's temporary restrictions that had been placed on them during a local rise of COVID-19 cases there.

The ruling, 5-4 in favor of the churches, Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America, said Cuomo's restrictions were in violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment because the two houses of worship in question faced harsher restrictions than nonreligious entities.

Tribune-Democrat reporter Christian Burney can be reached by email at cburney@ljtdmail.com. Help support local journalism by subscribing to the La Junta Tribune-Democrat.