Oregon High Court Rules Against Churches in Pandemic Closure Dispute

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown speaks with the media in Salem last year. (AP Photo/Sarah Zimmerman)

SALEM, Ore. (CN) — Oregon Governor Kate Brown’s ban on large church services, intended to slow the spread of Covid-19, was within the law, Oregon’s high court ruled Friday morning.

A group of churches led by Elkhorn Baptist Church sued the governor May 6, claiming her March 23 stay-at-home order, and its subsequent extension until July 6, is longer than the Oregon Constitution allows. The churches claim the order violates their free exercise of religion by barring nonessential social and recreational gatherings.

Baker County Circuit Judge Matthew Shirtcliff sided with the churches, issuing a preliminary injunction that would have allowed them to open.

Brown immediately asked the Oregon Supreme Court to issue a peremptory writ of mandamus vacating the injunction. And in a three-paragraph order, the Oregon Supreme Court granted Brown’s emergency motion to stay.

In his original ruling, Shirtcliff noted Brown “has an enormous responsibility” to protect Oregonians during the pandemic but said social distancing measures can be practiced at churches just as they are at other businesses deemed essential.

“The public interest is furthered by allowing people to fully exercise their right to worship and conduct their business,” wrote Shirtcliff, a former district attorney appointed to the bench in November by Brown.

In their stay of his ruling, the justices asked Shirtcliff to either vacate the ruling or issue further clarification. Shirtcliff responded with a three-sentence letter.

“I have elected to stand by my original ruling,” Shirtcliff wrote. “I will not be vacating the May 18, 2020 order granting preliminary injunctive relief and denying motion to dismiss or taking other action.”

On Friday, Oregon’s high court vacated Shirtcliff’s injunction. It found that the governor’s closure orders were not subject to such limitations and said it’s not up to the courts to issue rules that balance civil liberties with protecting public health during a pandemic.

“There have been and will continue to be debates about how best to respond to the threat posed by the coronavirus,” the court’s per curiam ruling states. “To the extent that those debates concern policy choices, they are properly for policymakers. That is, those difficult choices must be made by the people’s representatives in the legislative and executive branches of the government.”

The Supreme Court sent the case back to the circuit court, where it is still pending. Now, it’s up to the churches to decide what they want to do next. But the situation has changed.

Baker County is currently in phase two of the governor’s reopening plan, which means bars, restaurants and movie theaters are open, and churches can hold in-person services with more than 25 people, as long as they maintain social distancing.

The effort to reopen the state has been complicated by ongoing mass protests against police brutality. Thousands have marched in protests across the state — in Oregon’s small towns and cities and for 13 consecutive nights in Portland. Some see the protests as a justification to open other sectors of the economy more quickly, while others see it as a reason to put on the brakes.

Twenty-nine counties in Oregon are also in phase two status, while six are in phase one, which means fewer types of businesses are open and groups must be limited to 25. Multnomah County, home to Portland, is still sheltering at home, but was set to enter phase one today, until a surge in Covid-19 cases scuttled that.

Gov. Brown announced Thursday night that Multnomah County won’t enter phase one for at least another week. Also on hold are plans to move Hood River, Marion and Polk Counties into phase two.

“This is essentially a statewide ‘yellow light,’” Brown said in a statement. “It is time to press pause for one week before any further reopening.”

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