A Baker County judge is sticking to his guns on a ruling in favor of a group of churches who are asserting in a state lawsuit that Gov. Kate Brown’s COVID-19 restrictions should be invalidated.
Meanwhile, a separate pair of churches filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday seeking to overturn Brown’s restrictions on First Amendment grounds.
The churches in both the state and federal cases object to limitations the governor set restricting public gatherings — including church services — to 25 people.
Baker County Circuit Court Judge Matthew Shirtcliff issued a preliminary injunction in the state case last week that would have invalidated all of the governor’s stay at home orders. Shirtcliff said they’ve gone past their legal time limit.
The Oregon Supreme Court blocked that injunction taking effect and required Shirtcliff to either remove it or provide further explanation justifying his decision.
The governor and public health officials have credited the governor’s social distancing restrictions with reducing the number of COVID-19 cases in Oregon. If the churches are successful, restrictions on businesses and nonreligious gatherings would also be lifted.
In court documents, Shirtcliff didn’t offer an explanation for his decision to stand by his injunction. Instead, he submitted the following short statement:
“As you know, the Oregon Supreme Court issued an Alternative Writ of Mandamus on May 23, 2020. I have elected to stand by my original ruling. l will not be vacating the May 18, 2020 Order Granting Preliminary Injunctive Relief and Denying Motion To Dismiss or taking other action,” he said.
Ray Hacke, the attorney representing the churches in the state lawsuit, told The News-Review Tuesday he’s thrilled with Shirtcliff’s decision.
“It was 100% the right call,” Hacke said in an email. “Churches and people of faith throughout Oregon have had their religious rights trampled on by Gov. Brown long enough. It might have been necessary to some degree at the outset of the pandemic, but it no longer is, and the sooner Gov. Brown realizes that, the better.”
Hacke said the governor’s decision to continue limiting the ways that churches can conduct their services “shows deep hostility to people of faith” in Oregon.
“It sends a message that she doesn’t trust them to have the common sense or decency to behave in a way that won’t endanger other people’s lives,” Hacke said.
At the same time, he said, she’s allowing bars, restaurants and other secular places to reopen.
“If she can trust owners of local watering holes and their patrons to observe social-distancing guidelines, she can trust faith leaders and those who attend their worship services to do the same — as she must, since religious practice is protected under both the state and federal constitutions,” Hacke said.
Hacke said he has a strong argument to make for Shirtcliff’s injunction, and even if the Supreme Court judges are leaning in the opposite direction, he has another week to change their minds.
“I’ll do my best to be an effective advocate and after that, it’s in the Lord’s hands,” he said.