State and local public health departments on Friday dropped a lawsuit against Woodland Park-based Andrew Wommack Ministries over its alleged lack of compliance with COVID-19 health orders during religious gatherings.
“Since the governor had changed the public health rules, there wasn’t any reason to continue the lawsuit,” said Teller County Administrator Sheryl Decker. “We expect and trust they’ll continue to follow the rest of the requirements.”
After the U.S. Supreme Court's Nov. 25 ruling in New York that exempted religious observances from pandemic restrictions limiting attendance, Colorado’s public health department lifted restrictions on religious gatherings statewide.
However, religious organizations are still required to follow state orders mandating the wearing of masks indoors by adults and social distancing.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and Teller County Public Health and Environment sued Andrew Wommack Ministries, which runs Charis Bible College, claiming the campus was not following policies on wearing facial coverings, social distancing and room capacities.
“Standing up for the free exercise of religion and our constitutional rights has not been easy, but I believe it has been worth it,” Andrew Wommack, founder and president of the ministry, said in a statement. “America was built on religious freedom, and it is the most important right we have.”
Public health officials attributed two large COVID outbreaks to recent conferences the ministry hosted.
The outbreak from a family Bible conference in late June has been closed, Decker said, with 43 infections and one death, according to state data.
An outbreak traced to another conference in the summer caused 91 COVID cases, state data shows, and still is considered active, meaning it hasn’t been 28 days since the last positive case.
Wommack’s attorneys from Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit Florida-based legal group that represents religious liberty cases, argued that churches and religious organizations were being treated differently under Colorado’s COVID policies, which infringed on constitutional rights. It has disputed that health orders were not followed during the conferences or that they were the cause of positive cases.
The dismissal of the lawsuit marks the end of a legal dispute that began after Andrew Wommack Ministries received a cease-and-desist letter from Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser on July 2, during the organization’s family Bible conference.
The conference continued as scheduled, and Wommack was not fined.
Liberty Counsel filed a federal lawsuit on Wommack’s behalf claiming First Amendment violations and discrimination — not being treated the same as nonreligious activities. A U.S. District Court judge and the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the ministry.
Despite the decisions, Wommack held a ministers conference in October, which resulted in Teller County and Colorado state health departments filing a new lawsuit in Teller County Court to order the ministry to comply with public health orders.
One of the main issues was that conference participants were not required to wear masks, only encouraged to do so. Facial coverings were required of all Wommack staff.
Liberty Counsel abruptly withdrew its lawsuit on Oct. 8, after a federal judge said she would rule on the health departments’ call to hold the ministry in contempt of court and to prohibit future conferences. Wommack lawyers said the action was outside the court's jurisdiction.
A Teller County Court judge issued a temporary restraining order against Wommack on Oct. 9, which Wommack's leaders said wasn’t received until after the ministers conference had ended.
Two days before a women's conference was scheduled to begin in early November, Wommack received a third court order to comply with COVID restrictions. The conference went on, with the ministry saying it was in compliance. Meanwhile, public health officials had changed the state’s cap of 175 people per room to exclude staff.
The ministry canceled live performances of its Christmas musical show and moved them to a film version and a live outdoor Nativity scene.
The organization also agreed to hire a licensed nurse to work on its COVID suppression plan.
The agreement was unrelated to the legal cases, Decker said, and was spurred by Andrew Wommack Ministries’ denial of an Oct. 26 request to provide contact tracing and other information to Teller County Public Health and Environment.
“It’s unfortunate that it took a protracted legal battle to prove what should have been obvious — that the government cannot discriminate against religious worship,” said Andrew Wertz, senior vice president of Andrew Wommack Ministries and Charis Bible College. “However, we are certainly gratified that freedom of religion has been successfully defended.”
The next on-campus public event is the organization’s annual Men’s Advance conference, scheduled for March.
Ministry leaders “intend to continue implementing reasonable COVID restrictions to help protect the health and safety of all who come on campus,” officials said in a statement.
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