Churches in Oregon are suing Governor Kate Brown, alleging that her coronavirus stay-at-home orders that prohibit “non-essential social and recreational gatherings” encompasses church services and are unconstitutional.
The lawsuit is being led by Common Sense for Oregon, a nonprofit led by former Reupblican candidate for governor, Kevin Mannix. It includes ten churches, and over a dozen religious leaders and congregants from all over the state of Oregon. Arguing for the plaintiffs in the case is the Pacific Justice Institute. The lawsuit “seeks to invalidate” three of Governor Brown’s orders, starting with her initial emergency declaration that was signed on March 8.
The lawsuit that was filed in Baker County Circuit Court on May 6 is demanding that Governor Brown allow them to reopen the doors of their churches despite her March 8 executive orders, citing that her executive powers of 30 days expired on April 2. The churches are asking for a preliminary injunction that would block the governor from being allowed to enforce the executive orders. They are also asking the court to issue a temporary restraining order that would prevent the governor from continuing to enforce the executive stay at home orders that include the prohibition on gathering where people are not able to maintain social distancing. Their complaint goes on to argue that the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in the state do not have a serious enough of an impact on the state to warrant the continued closure of places of worship.
Lead attorney for the plaintiffs, Ray Hacke said in a statement, “There’s a rising tide of churches and churchgoers wanting to push back against Governor Brown’s oppressive executive orders, and this case will hopefully remind her that she is not free to dispense with constitutionally protected liberties, even in emergencies.”
Although the governor’s order doesn’t specifically mention church services, the plaintiffs contend that the March 23 executive order 20-12 that restricts “non-essential social and recreational gatherings,” encompasses church services and thus violates their constitutional rights to assemble and worship.
On May 7, the governor outlined a detailed plan for beginning to reopen the state in the coming weeks while emphasizing that if the virus resurges, the reduced restrictions could be rolled back.
Hacke acknowledges that religious freedom is an aspect of the lawsuit but says that the crux of the legal issue is upholding the governor’s authority as it is stated in the Oregon Constitution, Article X-A, which states that the governor’s powers can extend for no more than “30 days unless the Legislature, on at least a three-fifths vote of both the House and the Senate, agrees to extend the governor’s emergency powers.” He says that Brown has not convened the Legislature since declaring the emergency.