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Judge Nixes Oregon Governor’s Coronavirus-Related Restrictions on Religious Gatherings

Oregon governor Kate Brown in 2015 (Steve Dipaola/Reuters)

A county judge on Monday ruled against restrictions put in place by Oregon governor Kate Brown to stem the spread of the coronavirus, declaring them “null and void” because her emergency order has expired.

Baker County circuit judge Matthew Shirtcliff granted a preliminary injunction to ten churches who had sued the governor over the restrictions, which prevented them from gathering for religious services.

“This court understands that the current pandemic creates an unprecedented crisis in our state as well as this country,” Shirtcliff wrote in his ruling in Elkhorn Baptist Church vs. Katherine Brown. “The Governor has an enormous responsibility to protect the lives of the citizens of our state balanced against the citizens’ constitutional rights to freedom of religion which includes how he or she chooses to worship. 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, just as grocery stores and businesses deemed essential by the Governor have been authorized to do.”

Social-distancing directives implemented beyond Brown’s 28-day emergency order would require legislative approval, Shirtcliff ruled. He said the churches had shown they suffered “irreparable harm” from the restrictions.

The governor plans to appeal to the state’s high court, according to Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, who said in a statement that she believes Shirtcliff’s ruling is “legally incorrect” and that her office will ask for an immediate stay of his order.

“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,” Rosenblum said.

Oregon has seen more than 3,600 cases of the coronavirus, and 137 people have died in the state after being infected.

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