Oregon Supreme Court vacates court’s injunction in churches vs Brown lawsuit

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The ruling against the preliminary injunction came Friday morning

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The Oregon Supreme Court is siding with Gov. Kate Brown in limiting large in-person gatherings such as church services, vacating a previous lower court’s ruling that said the executive order was subject to a 28-day limit.

The ruling against the preliminary injunction came Friday morning.

The state’s highest court decided the Baker County Circuit Court had “erred in its ruling” that an executive order from Brown’s office related to the coronavirus pandemic violated a 28-day statutory time limit and had expired. Baker County Circuit Court Judge Matthew refused to vacate his order on May 26 after the Supreme Court had ordered him to either nullify the lawsuit or present a case as to why it needed to move forward.

However, the state did not decide on the lawsuit itself, which is still pending in Baker County.

Kevin Mannix of Common Sense Oregon is the attorney representing the Elkhorn Baptist Church in the suit. He released a statement on Friday morning over the ruling, saying he is disappointed but not surprised.

His statement read, in part:

“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.

There is one specific provision of the public health emergency law, in ORS 433.441(3), which creates a new power for the Governor, which is to close down businesses and other places where the public gathers, including churches. This lockdown power did not exist before the public health emergency law was enacted.  This law, passed in 2003 and 2007, limited public health emergency powers to 28 days.

The Supreme Court has now ruled that, because the public health emergency law co-exists with the general emergency law, the time limits of the public health emergency law do not limit the length of time that the Governor can issue lockdown orders when the Governor declares a general emergency.”

Mannix concluded the statement by saying he and the church disagree with the court’s interpretation. Next, he 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.”

When Brown was asked during a Friday press conference what she would say to people who can’t go to church, but can attend the ongoing protests, she said the following:

“In terms of Oregonians’ ability to attend church, mosque, or synagogue, I hear you. I know this is extremely frustrating. I know for many of us, our spirituality, our faith, is what sustains us, it’s what creates community and it gives many of us a sense a hope. I want to encourage you to practice your faith carefully and cautiously. There are faith communities around the state that are able to open, but right now in Multnomah County, we’re severely limiting the numbers, we want people to stay safe and we want people to stay healthy.”

The Elkhorn v. Brown lawsuit, which was filed by churches and individual churchgoers around the state in mid-May, wanted judicial declarations that Brown’s May 8 executive order extending the state of emergency for the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic had actually expired, and also wanted the courts to issue an injunction barring the enforcement of the orders.

Plaintiffs claim Brown’s order, which had prohibited gatherings of more than 25 people and requiring at least 6 feet between others regardless of a facility’s capacity, was hypocritical in the sense that other facilities, such as the Portland International Airport, manufacturing plants and farmers markets, didn’t have to follow the same cap.

“The Constitution forbids the government from prohibiting the free exercise of religion – which is exactly what the Governor’s order does while allowing larger assemblies for secular purposes,” the lawsuit stated.

More than 5,000 have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, while more than 170 have died in the state. More than 110,000 Americans have died from the novel coronavirus since February 2020, according to Johns Hopkins University.

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