Legal Battle: Stay-at-Home Order Valid, For Now

On May 18, Baker County Circuit Judge Matthew Shirtcliff invalidated Governor Kate Brown’s restrictions on social, religious, and business gatherings, along with other executive orders Brown issued under a state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Shirtcliff found that Brown exceeded her statutory authority, and granted a preliminary injunction on more than 20 orders dating back to March 12. According to Shirtcliff’s analysis, the state grants Brown the authority to issue such an order for just 28 days without approval from the state legislature. So far, some of the orders have been in place 120 days.  

The National Review reported that Shirtcliff wrote the following in his ruling on Elkhorn Baptist Church vs. Katherine Brown: “This court understands that the current pandemic creates an unprecedented crisis in our state as well as this country. 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.”  

The Elkhorn Baptist Church vs. Katherine Brown lawsuit argued that the governor’s recent executive orders were unconstitutional and infringed on their religious freedom. The lawsuit involved ten churches from around the state.  

The Governor’s Response   

The governor released a statement in response: “From the beginning of this pandemic, I have taken action to protect the health and safety of all Oregonians. We acted quickly and decisively at the beginning of the outbreak, using the best science and data available, to protect Oregon from COVID-19.  

Today’s ruling from the Baker County Circuit Court will be appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court within hours to keep my emergency orders in effect. This will ensure we can continue to safeguard the health of all Oregonians — including frontline health care workers, those living in nursing homes, workers in agriculture and food processing plants, and Oregonians with underlying health conditions –– while the legal process moves forward.  

The science behind these executive orders hasn’t changed one bit. Ongoing physical distancing, staying home as much as possible, and wearing face coverings will save lives across Oregon.”  

State Supreme Court Issues Emergency Stay  

Later Monday evening, the Oregon Supreme Court granted an emergency stay on the earlier ruling.  For now, the phased reopening plan continues while the higher court considers the matter.  

Ray Hacke, the attorney representing the faith groups in the court challenge, told Oregon Public Broadcasting, “The way I see it, the lower court found that the governor’s actions have irreparably harmed the religious people of this state.”  

The Governor’s Response   

The governor issued another statement in response to the state supreme court stay: 

“Following swift action by the Oregon Supreme Court, my emergency orders to protect the health and safety of Oregonians will remain in effect statewide while the court hears arguments in this lawsuit.  

From the beginning of this crisis, I have worked within my authority, using science and data as my guide, heeding the advice of medical experts. This strategy has saved lives and protected Oregonians from the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

There are no shortcuts for us to return to life as it was before this pandemic. Moving too quickly could return Oregon to the early days of this crisis, when we braced ourselves for hospitals to be overfilled and ventilators in short supply…  

We all look forward to visiting our loved ones in nursing homes, sending our children to school, and going to the grocery store without fear of spreading this disease. But the simple fact remains, COVID-19 is here in Oregon, and lives are at stake.”

By Samantha Sied