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New Mexico megachurches fined for packed Christmas services, governor's office slams as 'pro-virus'

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's office said offenders "endangered the lives, livelihoods and health of not only their parishioners but their entire communities."

New Mexico authorities levied $10,000 fines against two Albuquerque megachurches after their "pro-virus" clergy violated Covid-19 safety protocols, officials said Wednesday.

Viral videos and pictures of Christmas Eve services at Legacy Church and Calvary Church showed tightly packed worshippers with virtually no masks in sight.

Houses of worship are limited to 25 percent capacity in New Mexico as the state fights the spread of coronavirus.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's office minced no words, saying these services could spark mass spread of the deadly virus.

"In violating both the state public health order and common sense, these two churches and their leaders endangered the lives, livelihoods and health of not only their parishioners but their entire communities — and, given how quickly this virus can spread, potentially our state as a whole," Tripp Stelnicki, director of communications for Lujan Grisham, said in a statement.

A little more than 2,400 people in New Mexico have died from the coronavirus since the pandemic hit the United States earlier this year, according state data.

And as of Wednesday morning, New Mexico residents over the past seven days are testing positive for coronavirus at a rate of about 8.25 percent, according to data collected by the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. That's more than the generally accepted 5 percent rate to safely relax restrictions against businesses, but better than how a majority of states are doing now.

"We all wish this pandemic were over, but it’s not, and no pro-virus pastor may deem it so. So many New Mexicans have sacrificed — and lost — so much in this pandemic," Stelnicki said. "These illegal and selfish gatherings will directly contribute to more suffering and illness in our state. These church leaders should reflect on the danger they’ve unleashed in their communities."

In a statement to NBC News on Wednesday, Legacy Church didn't deny the state allegations but said authorities were exceeding "their constitutional authority" and were contradicting "what we are called on by God to do."

"It's tragic that what we do for thousands of shut-ins, those in despair, and kids who go without meals gets no state notice, but fixation on one service can net us large fines," according to the Legacy statement.

A rep from Calvary Church could not be immediately reached for comment on Wednesday.

CORRECTION (Dec. 31, 2020, 2:50 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated the source of the statement from the New Mexico governor's office. It was provided by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's spokesperson Tripp Stelnicki, not from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.