SALEM, Ore. (AP) — The Oregon Supreme Court late Monday halted a rural judge’s order earlier in the day that had tossed out statewide coronavirus restrictions imposed by Democratic Gov. Kate Brown.
Baker County Circuit Judge Matthew Shirtcliff had ruled that Brown erred by not seeking the Legislature’s approval to extend the stay-at-home orders beyond a 28-day limit. The Supreme Court’s ruling stays Shirtcliff’s decision pending review by all the high court justices.
In a statement, Brown praised the Supreme Court action.
“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,” she said.
The lower court judge had 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.
Document from the Oregon Supreme Court:
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.
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.
Earlier this month, Brown extended the order another 60 days until July 6. 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 was appealed on Monday.
“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.”
Top Republican applauds judge’s ruling, wants caution
The top Republican in the Oregon House applauded Judge Shirtcliff’s ruling but cautioned people to continue to follow federal guidelines so as not to undo the progress the state has made against the virus.
“This ruling will be appealed but the need for the governor to create the least possible harm in the exercise of extraordinary power remains,” she said. “There has been no accountability throughout this emergency declaration, until now.”
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.”
Flaccus reported from Portland, Oregon.
KOIN 6 News contributed to this report