A judge in rural Oregon on Monday tossed out statewide coronavirus restrictions imposed by Democratic Gov. Kate Brown, saying she didn’t seek the Legislature's approval to extend the stay-at-home orders beyond a 28-day limit.
Baker County Circuit Judge Matthew Shirtcliff issued his opinion in response to a lawsuit filed earlier this month by 10 churches around Oregon that argued the state's social-distancing directives were unconstitutional.
Brown said she would immediately seek an emergency review by the Oregon Supreme Court. Her attorneys asked the judge to stay his ruling until the high court could review the case, but he declined.
In a seven-page opinion, Shirtcliff wrote that the damage to Oregonians and their livelihood was greater than the dangers presented by the coronavirus. He also noted that other businesses deemed essential, such as grocery stores, had been allowed to remain open even with large numbers of people present and have relied on masks, social distancing and other measures to protect the public.
“The governor’s orders are not required for public safety when plaintiffs can continue to utilize social distancing and safety protocols at larger gatherings involving spiritual worship,” he wrote.
Similar actions have occurred in other states.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Gov. Tony Evers’ coronavirus stay-at-home order last Wednesday, ruling that his administration overstepped its authority when it extended it for another month without consulting legislators.
And a federal judge in North Carolina on Saturday sided with conservative Christian leaders and blocked the enforcement of restrictions that Gov. Roy Cooper ordered affecting indoor religious services during the coronavirus pandemic.
The order from Judge James C. Dever III came days after two Baptist churches, a minister and a Christian revival group filed a federal lawsuit seeking to immediately block enforcement of rules covering religious services within the Democratic governor’s executive orders.
In Louisiana, a federal judge on Friday refused a minister’s request to temporarily halt Gov. John Bel Edwards’ stay-at-home order, which expired that same day.
In Oregon, Brown declared a statewide state of emergency due to the virus on March 8 and has issued multiple executive orders since then, including the closure of all schools, non-essential businesses and a ban on dine-in service at restaurants and bars. All but a handful of Oregon counties, however, got the state's approval to begin loosening those restrictions last Friday.
Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum urged residents to abide by the stay-at-home orders while the ruling is appealed.
“We will argue that the judge erred in his construction of the relevant statutes and that he abused his discretion in issuing the preliminary injunction,” she said in a statement. “We will also be asking for an immediate stay of his order.”
Attorney Ray Hacke, who represented the plaintiffs in the case, said the ruling was a vindication not just for freedom of religion, but for all freedoms of people in the state.
“Praise God. I’m excited, and I’m glad that the judge saw that there are limitations on the governor’s power, even in the midst of emergencies,” he said. “If people want to get their haircut, they can. They can leave their home for any reason whether it’s deemed essential in the eye of the state or not.”
Shirtcliff, the judge, was the district attorney of Baker County from 2001 until Brown appointed him to be a judge last September, with the appointment having taken effect on Nov. 1.
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