Hamilton’s deputizing this flock appears to give preference to a religious sect, mixing church and state and social media in a political drama that has caught the attention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which has threatened litigation.
As a result, Luna said she has “received more calls than I would ever have liked,” from constituents.
Hamilton’s choice of the New Hope Revival Church ensured his words and actions would be captured and widely circulated, having a sophisticated multi-media system aimed at broadcasting its message across various social platforms.
Many attended the City Commission meeting broadcast live on Facebook as well, to see if the board would quell or support Hamilton’s attention-getting actions, which brought hundreds from outside the area, possibly bringing COVID-19 with them.
Hamilton was not nearly as loquacious at the podium as at the pulpit. The public noted the difference between how he explained himself to Luna versus what he had said to churchgoers.
“He speaks with forked tongue,” summarized most of those comments.
The New Hope Revival Church broadcast the May 3 service and Hamilton spoke at the pulpit, drawing attention to his gun and right to wear it. He criticized Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s political views and legislation, such as recent laws impinging on the right to bear arms and loosening abortion prohibitions.
He derided the Governor’s executive order. He claimed she is keeping businesses and Elephant Butte Lake State Park closed in Sierra County because he has opposed her. Keeping churches closed (until May 15) as nonessential compared to what she deemed essential businesses as well as favoring big box stores over small businesses were unfair, he said.
His attendance at the church service in itself supported defiance of the Governor’s order, since it gathered many more than the five people allowed.
At the end of his talk he emphasized he had “powers too,” and then deputized about 20 New Hope Revival Church members, noting deputies have immunity from the Governor’s executive order, adding “that is not my intent here today. My intent is for the safety and wellbeing of Sierra County.”
Hamilton again attended New Hope Revival Church and helped organize a rally there of Cowboys for Trump on May 17. Cars in train to the church were a mile long. About 20 horsed Cowboys were among the cavalcade and private militia from Albuquerque guarded the church with assault rifles.
After the church service, during which Hamilton spoke again, a rally was held in a tent on church grounds, at which he also spoke. He again ended his talk by deputizing en masse, this time the rally attendants.
Social media captured it all, along with the tempest of social commentary.
County Commissioner Frances Luna said, “I am scared to death of the legal ramifications.”
She followed the social media and characterized those attending and their comments “as radical as far as can be.”
Luna asked if he had a list of those deputized and Hamilton said no such reporting was required for special deputies recruited during times of emergency.
Hamilton criticized social and other media for not pointing out he had “cleared up” any misunderstanding that he was deputizing church goers to give them legal immunity by uttering the phrase, “that is not my intent here today. My intent is for the safety and wellbeing of Sierra County.”
He also said it was “disingenuous” of social and other media to not write that the special deputies had no power until he called them to duty, a detail he himself did not make clear during his speeches captured on social media.
“I’m looking for clerical help, to clean vehicles,” Hamilton said. “I’m not going to issue them guns and flack vests.”
Luna said constituents were afraid there would be no time for vetting if called to duty and those deputized wouldn’t realize the limits of their power and would abuse it.
Hamilton said he wasn’t legally allowed to vet them until they were called to duty. Only then could he do background checks.
Luna said she and constituents were afraid those deputized, as seen on social media, wouldn’t know their bounds and would abuse or exceed their powers.
She asked Hamilton why he chose to recruit special deputies from New Hope Revival Church and not from numerous retired state park and other law-enforcement officers in the area, “who know the rules.”
Hamilton said, “I have been doing that.” He deputized the church members “because they reached out to me.”
“The rally was a different thing,” Hamilton said, claiming they were not members of New Hope, nor was he. “I think that was my third time attending that church.”
He did not make clear how those attending the Cowboys for Trump rally were different, which website also espouses lack of gun control and defying the Governor’s order.
Hamilton said he has had “the same outpouring from the public and former law enforcement,” who have offered to become special deputies in larger numbers than the 20 deputized from New Hope.
But Luna insisted, “You also don’t have a list to show people differently,” to prove he is recruiting a broad spectrum of the populace.
Hamilton said his act of deputizing en masse was merely “a symbolic gesture” and if he had wanted to give mass immunity to the law he would have called them to duty at the same time.
Chairman Jim Paxon read six public comments, all critical of Hamilton, most stating he was inciting civil unrest and drawing a “defiant force” into the county who could infect him and others with COVID-19, modeling the opposite of a calming force in compliance with the Governor’s order.
Paxon said he would not judge Hamilton, an elected official, but would “depend on Attorney Dave Pato to determine if the sheriff has crossed the line and put us in a legal or fiscal bad spot.”
“We have allowed the Governor to put us under house arrest under the guise of flattening the curve,” Paxon said, seemingly in tune with Hamilton’s rallying against the order.
The County Commission went into executive session to discuss three pending or threatened litigation cases, including threatened litigation by the Freedom From Religion Foundation against Sheriff Hamilton.
After executive session, County Commissioner Frances Luna made the motion that “The County Manager be instructed to reach out to the Governor about the Sheriff and other concerns,” which was passed unanimously.