The explosions this past Fourth of July weren't all in the sky: Colorado Springs-based Andrew Wommack Ministries followed up a six-day conference with a celebration attended by over 800 people, despite an attempt by the Colorado Attorney General's Office to keep attendance to no more than 175 people. Now the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has traced a COVID-19 outbreak to the event, with two staff members and six attendees testing positive.
The conference was held from June 29 through July 4 at Charis Bible College, which evangelist Andrew Wommack founded in the town of Woodland Park in 1994. “The whole purpose was to praise the Lord and to teach the Bible, from the Bible,” explains Mike Perini, spokesperson for Andrew Wommack Ministries. “The Ministry believes that the gathering of Christians for teaching worship is essential to fulfilling the Great Commission of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
But gathering during a coronavirus pandemic can be complicated.
On June 25, Wommack and his executive team met with Teller County and Woodland Park public health and law enforcement officials to discuss how the conference could be hosted in a safe way. They submitted a social distancing and safety plan, then worked with the county to revise those standards to meet requirements for strict signage, protective equipment, increased levels of hand-washing, spaced seating and more.
Those proposed plans also called for limiting the number of attendees to under 1,000, far less than 50 percent of the capacity at the 32,000-seat worship center.
Under Governor Jared Polis's Eighth Amended Public Health Order, an indoor venue can host a maximum of 100 people, assuming that the venue can provide adequate space: six feet of distance per person. However, counties can seek a variance from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Teller County did receive a variance to hold slightly larger inside gatherings, according to the Colorado State Joint Information Center: “The variance granted to Teller County is clear. It states, ‘In order to achieve 6 ft social distancing, the limit is 50% of the posted occupancy code limit ensuring a minimum 28 square feet per person not to exceed more than 175 people at any given time in a confined indoor space, and 250 people in any outdoor setting.’”
Perini admits that Andrew Wommack Ministries went against the AG’s orders and allowed over 800 people to attend the last day of the conference and the culminating Fourth of July celebration, despite the variance's 175-person cap. “The only thing we didn’t agree to was the event at 175 or less capacity," he says, "because 175 is far less than 50 percent capacity."
But going over 175 people violated the variance, and on July 2, four days into the conference, Senior Attorney General Eric Kuhn sent a cease-and-desist letter to Andrew Wommack Ministries, asking the organization to comply with the CDPHE's public-health standards that restrict a confined indoor space to no more than 175 individuals.
“Limiting the size of gatherings is a primary epidemiological intervention that is being applied worldwide," Kuhn wrote. "Mass gatherings place not only AWMI’s attendees at risk, but also pose a risk to the communities near its property.”
Liberty Counsel responded on behalf of Andrew Wommack Ministries, detailing the extensive sanitation and safety protocols at the conference. The letter cited examples of other states that had allowed similar gatherings; it also pointed out that Governor Polis has made implicit First Amendment exceptions to his Executive Order, permitting thousands to gather for protests. "It is not possible to stay home, it is not possible to stay silent,” Polis had said.
Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, says that religious gatherings have a constitutional right to exist, and that not allowing them is “discriminatory treatment.” They are protected by the free speech, free assembly and free exercise of religion clauses of the First Amendment, he explains.
“It’s unconstitutional for Governor Polis and the attorney general to allow thousands of people to gather in protest — even encourage them to gather — while at the same time restricting religious gatherings,” Staver argues. “Colorado has been overly restrictive, frankly. And these restrictive numbers are arbitrary.”
Kuhn sent another letter on July 4, the day of the big event, reminding Andrew Wommack Ministries of the 175-person mandate.
But this celebration, too, went on as planned...but not permitted. “The First Amendment does not allow our leaders to decide which rights to honor and which to ignore,” Perini says. “We felt like we had already gone to great lengths to do what we could to comply short of telling people they couldn’t attend.”
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"We support religious communities coming together in fellowship, but we must all do this safely," responds the Colorado State Joint Information Center. “We need to all stay focused on keeping Coloradans safe and healthy, and limiting the spread of this deadly virus.”
“God doesn’t limit the numbers of people that can worship,” Perini counters. “Our hope is that the attorney general will reconsider their decision. We care about the community, we’ve followed everything, but we strongly believe that in the Bible we should be able to assemble.”
Staver says he plans to continue to work with local public-health officials on upcoming Andrew Wommack Ministries events. "We want to do what’s right to protect people, but we also understand the importance of meeting,” he notes. “There’s things you can’t do virtually or online, that you can only do in person.”
And that includes becoming infected with COVID-19, as at least eight people were when they attended the last Andrew Wommack Ministries gathering.