The Colorado attorney general has issued a cease-and desist order to Andrew Wommack Ministries of Woodland Park, saying the organization's Summer Family Bible Conference violated public health orders.
The July 2 order for the week-long conference that started June 29 comes as churches holding indoor services have become hot spots for outbreaks of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Despite the directive, the conference, a bible teaching and worship event, continued as scheduled through its completion at noon on July 3, ministry spokeswoman Eileen Quinn said.
The ministry's attorneys, Liberty Counsel of Lynchburg, Va., said they believed the organization complied with public health orders in Teller County except for the limit of 175 people for indoor gatherings. That limitation violates the ministry's First Amendment rights, the attorneys said.
A 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, as long as social distancing can be maintained. Gabi Johnson of the health department confirmed the variance granted to Teller County was for that limit, and that the conference violated that limit.
Liberty Counsel attorney Richard Mast said in a response to the order he interpreted it as allowing Andrew Wommack Ministries to hold events for up to 50% capacity of the venue's auditorium. Before this year’s conference started, the ministry estimated that 1,000 people would be on site for the event, with participants coming primarily from Colorado.
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 auditorium on the 336-acre campus, which also houses Wommack’s Charis Bible College, can seat more than 3,000 and “allows for safe social distancing," Quinn told The Gazette before the event.
Immediate compliance with the cease-and-desist order was required and any continued noncompliance would result in a temporary restraining order. The campus was closed to visitors Monday, but a summer school session for the Bible college is in operation until July 31 with 20 students, Quinn said.
"We are employing all the social distancing and safety precautions asked of us by Teller County in our day-to-day operations," she said.
Temperature checks and screening questions, social distancing and wearing personal protective equipment are in place, she said. Sanitation stations, prescribed social distancing signage and medically-approved sanitation protocols also are being used.
"We are going to great lengths to keep our staff, students and guests safe," Quinn said.
As of Tuesday, no new positive COVID-19 cases have been connected to last week's conference, Teller County Commissioner Marc Dettenrieder said.
Mast wrote that the conference planned to limit attendance to 50% of the capacity of the worship center, along with participants practicing social distancing and other guidelines, including sanitation, traffic patterns and mitigation efforts.
"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.
Mast said Wommack Ministries was surprised by the cease-and-desist letter, given that it had been working closely with Teller County on hosting the event at 50% capacity. However, Teller County's public health website indicates officials 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.
Johnson said Tuesday the state health department 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 for issuing the cease-and-desist order until July 2 was due to the need to fully investigate, 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," she said. "We support religious communities coming together in fellowship, but we must all do this safely."
Mast cited other gatherings that did not result in cease-and-desist orders, including a Black Lives Matter protest led by Denver Broncos players. Mast also pointed out that courts in other states have prohibited restrictions tied to COVID-19 for religious worship.
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. Other events have been canceled or moved online 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.”
Andrew Wommack, a Christian televangelist who defines himself as a Bible teacher, said in March his main message for the pandemic was to “not panic” but “to believe.”
“God’s Word promises that faith overcomes anything circumstances can throw at us,” he told the Gazette at the time. “However, just because we operate in faith doesn’t mean we don’t use wisdom and follow the guidelines the health professionals are giving.”
Churches holding services have become vectors for community spread of COVID-19 around the country. 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.