Salem church joins legal effort to overturn governor’s COVID-19 orders

(Courtesy/Wikimedia Commons)

Salem-based Peoples Church and nine other churches across Oregon have sued Gov. Kate Brown to force her to remove state restrictions on religious services and other activities.

The complaint was filed in Baker County Circuit Court on Wednesday by the Pacific Justice Institute, a California-based legal group focused on religious liberty issues. In addition to the churches, about 20 pastors and congregants Medford, Lake Oswego, Lebanon, Grants Pass, Roseburg and others.

The complaint argues that three executive orders issued by Brown in March to prevent the spread of COVID-19 violate constitutional protections for religious freedom as well as a provision in the Oregon Constitution.

Ray Hacke, a Salem attorney with the Pacific Justice Institute who filed the complaint, said that reached out to churches across the state and found many were eager to sign on. Churches outside Salem named as plaintiffs are from Baker City, Bend, Klamath Falls, Portland, Lincoln City, Newberg, Camas Valley.

Brown’s orders have shut many businesses and institutions. Others, including retail and manufacturing, have been allowed to remain open if they can maintain enough space to keep people apart. Hacke said such social distancing standards don’t work for churches.

“Churches, I would say, are an essential part of the lives of those who attend,” said Hacke.

He said he’s heard how congregants can’t lay hands on one another, can’t shake hands, or greet a newcomer and they can’t perform baptisms or communions. Offering the same services several times during the day to keep congregants spread out isn’t practical, he said.

The complaint comes as Brown (whose office didn’t respond to an email seeking comment) unveiled a plan on Thursday to begin lifting restrictions. But Hacke said Brown’s orders are illegal.

The complaint argues that under Article X-a, section 6 of Oregon’s constitution, the governor can only exercise emergency powers for 30 days after declaring a public health emergency. The constitution then requires the Legislature to authorize an extension of those powers, the complaint argues. The complaint asked that a judge rule Brown’s orders have expired and are of no further effect.

Hacke said that even if the Legislature extended Brown’s powers, the restrictions on churches would still run afoul of constitutional protections for religion.

“It’s called the free exercise of religion,” he said. “It’s not free if the government is dictating how it can be done.”

A call to Peoples Church Pastor Scott Erickson seeking comment wasn’t immediately returned. The church’s website notes that services are live streamed. It also invites worshippers to “drive-in” church by parking  in the lot at 4500 Lancaster Dr. N.E. and tune in on their radios.

Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.

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