BAKER CITY, Ore. — A county judge has effectively suspended Governor Kate Brown's coronavirus-related executive orders while presiding over a lawsuit brought by Oregon churches and other individuals.
Baker County Circuit Court judge Matthew Shirtcliff approved a request from the plaintiffs for a preliminary injunction on the order, denying a request from state attorneys for a stay on the decision.
The lawsuit itself comes from at least 10 Oregon churches and multiple individuals who argue that Governor Brown's orders are not consistent with the state constitution or legal statutes. They are represented by attorney Ray Hacke of the Pacific Justice Institute.
“These churches don’t want to live in fear of violating the law, they don’t want their congregants to live in fear of violating the law,” Hacke told NewsWatch 12 last week. “A lot of churches share Governor Brown’s concerns about public health and safety, they don’t want to endanger anybody in their congregation, they certainly don’t want to endanger anybody in the community.”
While the vast majority of Oregon counties have entered Phase One of reopening, churches in particular continue to see restrictions that some find unacceptable. Under Phase One, socially distant gatherings of 25 people or less are allowed, opening the door to smaller services. Regardless, the plaintiffs in this case are arguing for a total rollback of these gathering restrictions.
Brown's lawyers requested a 48-hour hold on the judge's Monday decision, but the Baker County judge denied the request. According to Hacke, this makes Brown's coronavirus orders "null and void" effective immediately.
Both Hacke and a representative from Governor Brown's office acknowledged that the ruling, whatever its merit, applies broadly to the extended executive orders — many of which have been in place since March — and not narrowly to religious gatherings.
Shortly after 12:30 p.m. on Monday, Governor Brown's office issued a statement arguing that the science behind her orders "hasn't changed one bit," in spite of the court's decision.
“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," Brown said. "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."
State Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum agreed, saying in a statement that her office would immediately appeal the decision to the Oregon Supreme Court.
"When the legislature adopted public health emergency statutes, it specifically said that it was not limiting the governor’s authority to deal with large-scale emergencies," Rosenblum said. “With all respect, I believe the trial court’s grant of a preliminary injunction is legally incorrect. 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. We will also be asking for an immediate stay of his order."
"Reopening the state too quickly, and without ongoing physical distancing, will jeopardize public health and cost lives," Brown continued. “It is irresponsible to dismiss the health risks and science behind our measures to stop COVID-19. We would be faced with the prospect of another mass outbreak without the tools that have proven to be effective in protecting our friends, families, neighbors, and loved ones from this disease.”
“I urge Oregonians to continue to comply with the measures in place," Rosenblum said. "They are there to protect all of us, and they are working. We are in close contact with the Governor and intend to support, as allowed by law, the critical work she has done, guided by public health experts, to ensure the safety and health of all Oregonians.”
NewsWatch 12 is working to get more information on the decision and its ramifications. This article will be updated as more details emerge.