Couy Griffin, besides being the founder of Cowboys for Trump, is also a county commissioner in Otero County. He will gather his followers at 9 a.m. at the Sierra County Fairgrounds, unloading horses and then riding to the New Hope Revival Church at 800 E. Third Ave., where Pastor Caleb Cooper will hold service at 10 a.m.
Griffin and Cooper are encouraging all who are interested to attend.
In Facebook posts by Griffin and Cooper both state Sierra County Sheriff Glenn Hamilton will be with them, although Hamilton did not reply to the Sierra County Sun’s request for confirmation.
Griffin and Cooper, in their Facebook posts, claim the Governor is overstepping her authority in requiring people to wear masks and keep church attendance down to 10 percent of the church building’s capacity as determined by fire code. Griffin said that the Governor’s order “isn’t a law.” Both claim their constitutional rights to worship and assemble are being violated.
Hamilton, in two prior interviews with the Sun, has stated he is advising churches and businesses that “There is no doubt the governor has the authority” to execute her orders under the Public Health Emergency Response Act, not agreeing with Griffin and Cooper that what she is doing is unconstitutional. The State Police and Department of Health have the legal authority to enforce the Public Health Emergency Response Act, he said.
But Hamilton’s words and actions appeared to defy the Governor’s order at New Hope’s May 3 service. No physical church gatherings were allowed at that time under the order, yet Hamilton attended and spoke and then deputized about 20 parishioners, making them law enforcement officers with immunity from the order, he said.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has since threatened a suit against Hamilton, confirmed by the Sierra County Commission’s May 19 agenda, the board to discuss threatened litigation in executive session. Hamilton did not respond to a request for confirmation or comment.
A May 12 press release from the FFRF hints at what complaints a possible suit might contain:
“It is an egregious abuse of power for you to not only promote your religious views using your position as sheriff, but to literally share the power of your office exclusively with Christians by making them special deputies with additional rights under the law,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to the sheriff. “This abuse is further compounded by the fact that this deputization appears to be a scheme to allow Christians to circumvent the law and potentially endanger the lives and health of all Sierra County residents by holding large religious gatherings during a global pandemic.”
“It is a fundamental principle of Establishment Clause jurisprudence that the government cannot in any way promote, advance, or otherwise endorse religion, FFRF adds. The decision of the Sierra County sheriff to exclusively deputize those who attend churches favors citizens based on their religious affiliation, since his overt promotion of religion using his official title, uniform and governmental authority gives the clear indication that the county supports and endorses particular religious beliefs.”
Caleb Cooper has also gotten some legal push back. On his Facebook page he posted a video of State Police delivering a “cease and desist” warning letter to not hold church services in defiance of the order on May 10.
The Sun asked New Mexico State Police Public Information Officer Lieutenant Mark Soriano if they will have a presence at New Hope Revival Church tomorrow.
“We are aware of the planned gathering and are monitoring events scheduled for May 17th,” Soriano said.
The State Police are taking a multi-step approach to gaining compliance with the Governor’s order. Soriano gave the following description of the protocol:
“1st Violation: Make contact in-person contact with the owner of business/manager and educate them on the Public Health Order. We will also serve them with a Notice of First Violation and a Cease and Desist letter.
“2nd Violation: Issue a citation to the business owner/manager utilizing the Uniform Traffic Citation. Criminal Statute: (24-1-21 Public Health Act) a petty misdemeanor.
“3rd and Subsequent Violations: NMSP will advise the Department of Health of the business that is non-compliant; they may impose civil penalties up to $5,000. Civil Penalties: (12-10A-19 Public Health Emergency Response Act.)”
Soriano said Pastor Caleb Cooper has been served a 1st Violation.