Judge Orders Oregon Governor’s Coronavirus Restrictions on Religious Gatherings, Other Emergency Orders ‘Null and Void’; Governor to Seek State Supreme Court Review

The judge issued his ruling from the bench via video-conference Monday morning, May 18, 2020.

A Baker County judge on Monday ruled that Gov. Kate Brown’s restrictions on religious gatherings as well as her other “Stay Home Save Lives” coronavirus orders are “null and void” because they exceed a 28-day limit — potentially throwing statewide pandemic response plans into disarray.

Less than three hours later, the governor’s office appealed to the state Supreme Court to keep her emergency orders in effect.

“This will ensure we can continue to safeguard the health of all Oregonians — including frontline health care workers, those living in nursing homes, workers in agriculture and food processing plants, and Oregonians with underlying health conditions –– while the legal process moves forward,“ Brown said in a statement.

Circuit Judge Matthew B. Shirtcliff granted a preliminary injunction to 10 churches that had sued the governor, finding they had shown “irreparable harm” from the deprivation of the right to freely exercise their religions.

“The governor’s orders are not required for public safety when plaintiffs can continue to utilize social distancing and safety protocols at larger gatherings involving spiritual worship,” he ruled.

He noted: “Plaintiffs have shown that they will be harmed by deprivation of the constitutional right to freely exercise their religion. Other plaintiffs have also shown great economic harm to their businesses and their ability to seek livelihood.”

He found that the churches can take necessary social distancing precautions, just as grocery stores and other essential businesses have done. He also ruled that the injunction was in the public’s interest, allowing people the right to freely worship and the ability to restore economic viability.

“This court understands that the current pandemic creates an unprecedented crisis in the state as well as in our country,” Shirtcliff said, speaking from the bench in a videoconference hearing.

He said he must weigh the governor’s public health concerns against the constitutional right of freedom of worship, but he found that “the balance of equities tips in favor of Plaintiffs.”

Salem-based attorney Ray D. Hacke filed the lawsuit earlier this month on behalf of the nonprofit group Pacific Justice Institute, which takes on religious liberty cases, 10 churches from across the state and 21 individuals. The churches, led by Elkhorn Baptist Church in Baker City, are in Bend, Camas Valley, Klamath Falls, Lincoln City, Newberg, Portland, Roseburg and Salem.

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