The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) is urging a New Mexico sheriff to quit enabling a church to breach pandemic social-distancing orders.
On May 3, Sierra County Sheriff Glenn Hamilton attended a worship service at New Hope Revival Church in his official capacity. He reportedly spoke for 25 minutes in uniform, promoting his personal religious beliefs. Hamilton also talked about his support of churches that violate the law by holding large in-person services.
Hamilton then deputized 20 church attendees en masse, making sure to note that they were now exempt from the New Mexico governor’s order banning large gatherings. These special Christian deputies will be involved in “everything from crowd control measures to as simple as administrative staff duties,” Hamilton remarked, and they won’t “be engaged in actual law enforcement duties per se, unless the individual is maybe retired law enforcement.” Hamilton has also offered to deputize all churches in Sierra County. Hamilton’s actions have already compelled Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to have a cease-and-desist order delivered to the New Hope Revival Church.
As Sierra County’s highest law enforcement official, the sheriff is tasked with upholding the law, FFRF points out to Hamilton.
“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.
The Sheriff’s Office should strive to be equally welcoming of all residents — regardless of whether they are Christian, practice a minority religion, or are nonreligious, adds FFRF. The state/church watchdog demands that the sheriff stop using his office to promote religion and not only cease deputizing church attendees in the future, but revoke all current deputizations for church attendees.
“A sheriff acting in the service of a particular religion is bad enough,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “But when the intent is to help flout pandemic directives, it becomes an outrageously irresponsible dereliction of duty.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 32,000 members across the country, including hundreds of members in New Mexico. FFRF protects the constitutional separation between state and church, and educates about nontheism.