COVID-19 Outbreak Ministry Suing Polis to Hold New Event

People practicing social distancing at the 800-person Bible conference held by Andrew Wommack Ministries this summer.
People practicing social distancing at the 800-person Bible conference held by Andrew Wommack Ministries this summer. Courtesy of Andrew Wommack Ministries
Andrew Wommack Ministries International defied the Colorado Attorney General's Office when it staged an event for around 800 people during a late-June/early-July Bible conference. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment subsequently declared the gathering a COVID-19 outbreak after two positive staff cases, six positive attendee cases and one probable attendee case were revealed.

Now, Wommack and company are coming back for more. The organization sued Governor Jared Polis, among others, in federal court over safety protocols that could cramp its style during the AWMI Minister’s Conference, slated to start on October 5. On September 29, the court denied a ministry motion for a temporary restraining order to allow the event, prompting an appeal to the Tenth Circuit Court mere hours later.

AWMI is represented by Liberty Counsel, which describes itself as "an international nonprofit, litigation, education, and policy organization dedicated to advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and the family since 1989, by providing pro bono assistance and representation on these and related topics." The legal organization claims that Colorado orders related to the novel coronavirus are unconstitutional. "The virus does not discriminate between nonreligious and religious gatherings, but Governor Jared Polis does," says founder and chairman Mat Staver, noting that there "is no constitutional justification to treat nonreligious gatherings better than religious gatherings. The First Amendment gives preferential treatment to the free exercise of religion."

The June 29-July 4 conference was presented at Woodland Park's Charis Bible College, which Wommack founded in 1994. In the days before it got under way, Wommack and his executive team presented a safety plan to officials with both the town and Teller County that called for limiting attendance to under 1,000 people. Problem was, the then-current state health order capped attendance indoors at 100 people and outdoors at 175 people. But AWMI allowed more than 800 folks to gather for the conference's finale, a Fourth of July celebration.

"God doesn’t limit the numbers of people that can worship," a ministry spokesperson contended.

In its request for a temporary restraining order against the state that would allow the upcoming ministry event, Liberty Counsel maintained that Polis's orders "internally discriminate between AWMI’s permissible nonreligious activities and its impermissible religious activities in the same building, for the same number of people. The Governor’s Orders also externally discriminate between AWMI’s religious activities and the non-religious activities of other 'Critical Businesses' and formally exempt entities, and de facto exempt mass protests. Thus, the Governor’s Orders infringe on AWMI’s constitutionally protected rights to free exercise and speech, and freedom from hostility towards its sincerely held religious beliefs. The Constitution does not have provide [sic] a pause button for the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Governor’s unconstitutional restriction of AWMI’s cherished First Amendment liberties should be enjoined."

Judge Christine M. Arguello, who sits on the United States District Court for the District of Colorado, wasn't persuaded by these assertions. In her denial, she wrote, "This case is one of many attempts to enjoin the enforcement of state public health laws in order to allow large groups of people to gather together — in the middle of a global pandemic.... Numerous courts have considered, and persuasively rejected, nearly identical

In a concluding section labeled "Balance of Equities and Public Interest Disfavor Injunction," Arguello expanded on these thoughts: "Plaintiff seeks to enjoin public health laws in order to allow it to gather a large group of people during a pandemic. Granting such an injunction would present a high risk of harm to the state of Colorado as well as the public generally. The state has the responsibility to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 virus, which is made more difficult when case numbers increase. The relief Plaintiff requests has the potential to increase case numbers significantly, placing a high burden on the state. Further, Plaintiff would be compromising the health of the public, which could cause the death of an untold number of innocent citizens."

The notice of appeal doesn't respond specifically to Arguello's ruling; it's simply a declaration of purpose. But in his remarks, Staver stresses, "We look forward to presenting arguments to the Court of Appeals, and even the Supreme Court, at some time in the future. This case is far from over."

By the way, the home page of Liberty Counsel's website boasts a photo of Amy Coney Barrett, President Donald Trump's choice to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court.

Click to read the order denying a motion for injunctive relief in the case of Andrew Wommack Ministries v. Jared Polis, et al., and the notice of appeal.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts