2 more Oregon churches sue Brown over gathering restrictions

Oregon

Edgewater Christian Fellowship in Grants Pass and the Church of God of Prophecy in Roseburg filed the federal suit

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Two more Oregon churches are suing Governor Kate Brown in federal court over her executive order restricting social gatherings. 

Edgewater Christian Fellowship in Grants Pass and the Church of God of Prophecy in Roseburg filed the lawsuit Tuesday against Brown, the Oregon State Police superintendent, the director of the Oregon Health Authority and the sheriffs of both Josephine and Douglas counties. 

The churches both temporarily suspended in-person gatherings in mid-March after Brown issued her stay-home order. 

The churches believe they’re “called to resume in-person worship services” after complying with Brown’s orders to suspend public gatherings for more than two months. They cite “minimal risk” of the coronavirus in their respective counties, which have both entered Phase 1 of reopening. 

The suit claims Josephine County has no active cases and Douglas has only two.

The lawsuit states that Brown’s “Religious Assembly Ban” limits gatherings to 25 people and requires distancing of six feet between people regardless of a church’s capacity. It claims other facilities are open but don’t have to follow the same 25-person cap, such as PDX, farmers markets, manufacturing plants like Intel and the Clackamas Town Center.  

“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 (e.g. “fitness classes”). Because the Governor’s order threatens significant jail time and penalties for anyone who meets for a church service in violation of her order, a temporary restraining order and injunction are necessary to preserve Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights,” the lawsuit states. 

Edgewater Christian Fellowship and the Church of God of Prophecy said they plan to follow social distancing guidelines once they resume in-person Sunday services. They also included a list of protocols they plan to follow, including extra sanitization practices and limiting the number of people attending each service in accordance with how many they can safely accommodate inside their buildings.

“Defendants have deprived, and continue to deprive, Plaintiffs of their clearly established rights under the United States Constitution,” the suit alleges. “Unless the policies and conduct of Defendants are enjoined, Plaintiffs will continue to suffer irreparable injury.”

The suit also states the following, in part:

“The Religious Assembly Ban substantially burdens Plaintiffs’ religion by prohibiting them from holding in-person church services with more than 25 individuals present. The Religious Assembly Ban substantially interferes with Plaintiffs’ ability to carry out their doctrine, faith, and mission. The Religious Assembly Ban targets, discriminates against, and shows hostility towards churches, including Plaintiffs.”

The Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys representing the churches said the houses of worship plan to resume in-person services on May 31. The group released the following statement, in part:

“The governor’s ban makes such services illegal and would subject the churches to possible criminal and civil penalties. The lawsuit indicates that a motion for a temporary restraining order is forthcoming that asks the court to immediately halt enforcement of the provision.”

This latest lawsuit comes as the Oregon Supreme Court prepares to decide on a similar case involving Baker County.

Oregon’s high court put a stay on a ruling by a Baker County judge that voided Brown’s emergency stay-home order during the pandemic.

Baker County Circuit Judge Matthew Shirtcliff ruled 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.

Trump says churches ‘essential’ as Oregon Supreme Court hears lawsuit arguments

Gov. Brown’s office declined to comment due to ongoing litigation.

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