Oregon Judges Take Fight Over Reopening Churches to Mat

The Baker County, Oregon, courthouse in Baker City. (By Scott Catron from Sandy, Utah, USA – Baker City Oregon municipal building. Uploaded by Zaui, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link)

BAKER CITY, Ore. (CN) — A small town judge doubled down Tuesday on an earlier ruling in which he cleared churches to open in spite of Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s closure orders aimed at reducing the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Oregon Supreme Court immediately stayed Baker County Circuit Judge Matthew Shirtcliff’s ruling. Over the Memorial Day weekend, the justices asked Shirtcliff to either vacate the ruling or issue further clarification. On Tuesday, 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.”

It was a statement about the length of a tweet.

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 a statement after Shirtcliff issued his ruling, Brown said, “The science behind these executive orders hasn’t changed one bit. Ongoing physical distancing, staying home as much as possible and wearing face coverings will save lives across Oregon.”

A group of churches led by Elkhorn Baptist Church had 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. Brown said at the time that reopening Oregon too quickly could risk another mass outbreak.

Since then, Brown has allowed 34 of Oregon’s 36 counties — including Baker County — to begin “phase one” of reopening. That means gatherings of up to 25 people are allowed as long as social distancing measures are maintained, and businesses like restaurants, gyms and barbershops can reopen. The rules for phase one don’t speak specifically to churches.

Multnomah County, where Portland is located, is the only county in the state that has not yet applied to reopen. The state is reviewing the application submitted by Washington County, home to a number of Portland suburbs.

In Deschutes County, home to high desert vacation destinations surrounding Bend, reopening came with a cost: a surge in cases of Covid-19 when residents held parties and barbecues newly allowed by phase one. Cases there rose by 27% in the days following reopening, mostly among people between the ages of 20 and 29, according to a report by Oregon Public Broadcasting.

In Washington state, a choir practice at the Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church was an early “superspreading event” in which 52 out of 61 attendees caught the virus during one evening practice. Two died.

“There are no shortcuts for us to return to life as it was before this pandemic,” Brown said in a statement after the Oregon Supreme Court halted Shirtcliff’s ruling. “Moving too quickly could return Oregon to the early days of this crisis, when we braced ourselves for hospitals to be overfilled and ventilators in short supply.”

Her comments suggested churchgoers aren’t the only people in Oregon with activities they are waiting to resume.

“We all look forward to visiting our loved ones in nursing homes, sending our children to school, and going to the grocery store without fear of spreading this disease,” Brown said. “But the simple fact remains, Covid-19 is here in Oregon and lives are at stake.”

This past Friday, President Donald Trump threatened without authority to “override” state bans on the reopening of churches during the pandemic. But California Gov. Gavin Newsom beat him to the punch by saying he would issue guidelines for churches in the Golden State to reopen on Memorial Day.

Those guidelines include limiting attendance to no more than 100 — far fewer in smaller buildings — asking worshipers to avoid sharing materials like hymnals and prayer books and recommending everyone wear face masks.

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