For a few hours Monday, it seemed churchgoers would be free to gather for services this Sunday.
A Baker County Circuit Court judge issued a ruling Monday that would have invalidated Gov. Kate Brown’s stay at home orders, saying they’ve gone past their legal time limit.
But the Oregon Supreme Court has blocked that order going into effect, at least for the time being.
Monday’s decisions came in a lawsuit by churches who argued their constitutional rights were violated by the governor’s orders limiting the number of people who could gather.
Baker County Circuit Judge Matthew Shirtcliff wrote that both churchgoers and businesses were suffering irreparable harm from being forced to close their doors. And he said the governor’s emergency orders should have concluded after 28 days.
“The public interest is furthered by allowing people to fully exercise their right to worship and conduct their business,” Shirtcliff wrote.
The governor appealed Shirtcliff’s decision, and the Oregon Supreme Court stepped in Monday evening to block Shirtcliff’s order until the higher court has a chance to review arguments from both sides.
Two of the churches in the lawsuit against the governor are local — Covenant Grace Church and Camas Valley Christian Fellowship.
Attorney Ray Hacke, who represents the churches filing the lawsuit, said Monday it may have made sense in the beginning for the governor to have enacted some restrictions. However, he said continuing to extend a ban that prevents churchgoers from assembling at their places of worship was too great an infringement on their constitutional rights.
“Even in the face of emergencies, she still has to operate within the confines of the Oregon Revised Statutes and the constitution, and she has not done that,” he said.
He said the governor’s orders implied that events like church services, weddings and youth group meetings are not essential. But he said churches are as essential as places like Costco or Home Depot.
“Right now we’re dealing with a lot of people who are lonely and depressed and isolated. People in churches do a lot for these people’s spiritual and emotional and mental health,” he said.
As for how churches will react if they’re allowed to open up, Hacke said these organizations aren’t cookie cutter. Some serve mainly elderly populations while others serve primarily young families.
“The decision is in their hands. If they want to stay closed great. If they want to open back up that’s fine too,” he said.
That’s what freedom is all about, he said.
Some local churches told The News-Review Monday they wouldn’t open up just yet, even if they could, citing concern for parishioners’ safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mike Kildal, executive pastor of Redeemer’s Fellowship, and Rev. David Thompson of First United Methodist Church said their churches would continue online services for the time being. Neither church was part of the lawsuit.
Kildal said he believes the governor’s orders should be taken seriously.
“We have winced at some of our churches who have gathered in spite of the order and have exceeded the 25 people. We would not want to be that church that locks down our county again because we were brazen in going beyond the governor’s order,” Kildal said.
“Do we have people who are itching to gather? We sure do. And we have people who are afraid to gather and they both exist as part of our church family,” he said.
Thompson correctly anticipated that Shirtcliff’s decision would be appealed.
“Either way, we would hold off. For us it’s concern for the church community. We have a number of folk who are in that high risk area, and I want to make sure that I can do my best to ensure that people are safe,” he said.
He said churches aren’t set up well for creating physical distance. When the First United Methodist Church eventually reopens, they’ll first create a plan that will include roping off pews and providing hand sanitizer and masks.
Some local businesses also remained cautious.
The governor had authorized a Phase I reopening for Douglas and many other counties last week, which meant businesses could reopen with extra social distancing and other safety measures.
Loggers Tap House owner Sam Gross said his restaurant opened at 50% capacity Friday and had a great weekend. He said he planned no change in response to Shirtcliff’s decision.
“I would rather not change things now, only to change them again in a few days or a week. It is too confusing for our team and our customers,” Gross said.
The governor said in a press release on Monday that Oregonians have turned the tide on the spread of COVID-19, and the science behind her orders hasn’t changed.
“Reopening the state too quickly, and without ongoing physical distancing, will jeopardize public health and cost lives,” she said.