A Woodland Park ministry that had challenged the state's 175-person cap on indoor gatherings as a violation of its constitutional religious rights dropped its federal lawsuit Thursday.
Teller County Public Health and Environment and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment responded by filing a new complaint in Teller County District Court asking for a temporary restraining order to force Andrew Wommack Ministries to comply with public health orders that restrict crowd gatherings and cease its ministers conference that started Monday.
Wommack's decision to halt the legal action came during a U.S. District Court hearing in Denver on an emergency motion that state and local health departments filed Tuesday to stop the conference. The health departments' motion requested that Wommack be held in contempt for disobeying public health orders and for the court to prohibit future conferences.
The conference had gone on as scheduled despite a federal judge last week denying the ministry's request for a waiver from state's pandemic cap on the number of people allowed to gather indoors, arguing that it violated its First Amendment rights and discriminated against religious organizations. The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals denied the request on Monday. The conference, attended by estimated 1,000 people, according to Teller County officials, was to run through Friday and end with a worship service.
Andrew Wommack Ministries' attorneys from Liberty Counsel, a conservative nonprofit based in Florida that engages in litigation related to evangelical Christian values, did not answer questions about the conference during the hearing, including how many were attending and what if any COVID-19 precautions were being taken, Teller County officials said in a news release.
Liberty Counsel also did not respond to public health officials after Thursday's hearing, to "discuss plans for complying with public health orders for the remainder of the conference."
Between 500 and 600 people have attended each session of the conference, said Eileen Quinn, spokeswoman for the ministry. Events, including those on Thursday, were live-streamed to participants, who were seated in separate zones throughout the large main building, which has a capacity of more than 5,000 people, she said.
The conference was mandatory, according to the Wommack lawsuit, for this semester’s 652 students of Wommack’s Charis Bible College, a nonresidential program on the campus. Pastors and ministers from around the nation also are attending.
A Facebook video from Monday showed attendees not wearing masks, which were not required of guests, yelling, singing and not being spaced 6 feet apart, according to the health departments' lawsuit.
The Colorado Attorney General's Office issued a cease-and-desist order to Andrew Wommack Ministries on July 2, a day before its last mass gathering on the campus, a summer family Bible conference, was to end. The conference continued and finished on its scheduled day of July 3.
That event drew 1,710 attendees and had 564 staff working at it, according to the lawsuit local and state officials filed Thursday. In the subsequent weeks, 16 attendees and 24 staff were confirmed to have COVID-19, and another 23 people were "probable" cases. Two of the infected people were hospitalized and one died. Andrew Wommack Ministries did not comply with contact tracing procedures, the health department said.
No COVID-19 cases have been reported among this semester's 652 students since Charis Bible College classes began Aug. 31, said Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, which filed the original lawsuit on Sept. 28 on Wommack’s behalf.
The health department "wrongly alleges" the connection and provided “no evidence that Andrew Wommack Ministries caused an 'outbreak'" during its summer conference, Staver said.
He quoted the state health department website, "It is possible that a person may have been exposed elsewhere (and we can rarely prove where any individual was exposed with a person-to-person pathogen), but when a person worked/lived/spent time in a facility with a known outbreak, we attribute their illness to the outbreak even if there is no definitive determination that the case acquired the illness at the facility."
Health department officials also attribute a COVID-19 outbreak in El Paso County a week after another conference that was scheduled at Wommack's Woodland Park campus was moved to Colorado Springs, according to the new lawsuit.
"Teller County remains concerned that Andrew Wommack Ministries' conference poses a threat to public health in Teller County and the state of Colorado," the county health department said in its news release.
Andrew Wommack Ministries issued a statement Thursday saying that the ministry is "looking forward to vindicating its First Amendment rights and maintaining its current schedule of events."