Churches’ Lose Supreme Court Bid Against Governor’s Stay Home Order

A lawsuit by a group of churches and Eastern Oregon public officials against Governor Brown’s stay-at-home orders was struck down by the Oregon Supreme Court on Friday, June 12.  

The state’s Supreme Court determined that Baker County Circuit Court Judge Matthew Shirtcliff was incorrect in his ruling that Gov. Kate Brown’s coronavirus restrictions and stay-at-home order had extended past the 28-day statutory period and were therefore invalid and expired. The Oregon Supreme Court, in opposition, asserts that a state of emergency cannot be subjected to a time limit, and thus, Brown’s orders will remain in effect.  

This ruling follows a lawsuit in which ten churches and other plaintiffs argued against Brown’s March 8 executive order, citing that the decision was invalid and had expired after the 28-day limit. Because Brown didn’t seek the Legislature’s approval to extend stay-at-home orders beyond the original 28-day limit, Shirtcliff declared that her orders were in fact invalid.   

Judge Shirtcliff’s injunction did initially pause Brown’s orders, but the Oregon Supreme Court has since reinstated Brown’s orders after reviewing his decision.  

The Oregon Supreme Court claims that Baker County Circuit Court and Judge Shirtcliff made an error when asserting that there was a statutory time limit applied to Brown’s orders. ORS 401.165 gives Brown the ability to declare a state of emergency and grants her emergency powers. These powers include her right to police powers entrusted in the state by the constitution. This means that Brown has the ability to use this power for “the promotion of the order, safety, health, morals, and general welfare of the public.” 

The U.S. Supreme Court has also previously declared that when given the right to police power, communities can protect themselves “against an epidemic of disease which threatens the safety of its members.” 

An attorney for Common Sense Oregon, Kevin Mannix, who helped the churches file the lawsuit says he is disappointed with the Oregon Supreme Court’s decision.  

The key legal component to the Oregon Supreme Court decision is that they have infused a specific power from the public health emergency law into the general emergency law. The general emergency law, adopted in 1949, allows the Governor to declare an emergency to deal with disasters such as fires, floods, and storms. It was not designed for epidemics, although it can address outbreaks of disease following a disaster. The general emergency law does not include a provision which allows the Governor to close down churches and businesses throughout the state.”  

Mannix continued, “We disagree with that interpretation. With this ruling in hand, we will ask the Legislature to amend the law to make it clear that the Governor’s lockdown powers truly do have a 28-day time limit, even when the Governor declares a general emergency.” 

The Baker County case is still pending, and next, the circuit court and the churches involved in the lawsuit need to evaluate the Supreme Court’s ruling and then decide how they wish the case to continue.  

By Cara Nixon