PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The Oregon Supreme Court is giving a rural judge until Tuesday to toss out his ruling that found the governor's coronavirus restrictions are invalid.
If the judge declines to do so, justices said Saturday that Baker County Circuit Judge Matthew Shirtcliff must explain why and give the state and churches who sued over the stay-at-home directives an opportunity to make further arguments.
Shirtcliff ruled Monday that Gov. Kate Brown had exceeded her authority by shutting down in-person religious services to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. The lawsuit was brought by 10 churches around Oregon and later was joined by several local elected officials and business owners.
Shirtcliff’s broad ruling also invalidated many of the other provisions of Brown’s stay-at-home order, including a ban on public gatherings and a ban on non-essential businesses and sit-down service in bars and restaurants.
The Supreme Court quickly stayed Shirtcliff’s order, keeping Brown’s directives in place.
On Saturday, the justices sent the case back to Shirtcliff with orders to expunge his ruling or explain why not.
In his 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.
Courts in other states have ruled against similar orders. The Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Gov. Tony Evers’ stay-at-home order last week, ruling that his administration overstepped its authority when it extended the order for another month without consulting legislators.
A federal judge in North Carolina on May 16 sided with conservative Christian leaders and blocked the enforcement of restrictions that Gov. Roy Cooper ordered affecting indoor religious services during the pandemic.
The order from Judge James C. Dever III came days after two churches, a minister and a Christian revival group filed a federal lawsuit seeking to immediately block enforcement of rules covering religious services within the Democratic governor’s executive orders.
In Louisiana, however, a federal judge refused a minister’s request to temporarily halt Gov. John Bel Edwards’ stay-at-home order, which expired that same day.
The ruling by the county judge in Oregon turned on the legal mechanism Brown used to issue her orders. The plaintiffs allege — and the judge agreed — that they were issued under a statute pertaining to public health emergencies, not an older provision that addresses natural disasters such as storms, earthquakes or floods.
The public health statute contains the 28-day time limit, while the other does not contain a time limit.
Brown maintained in court papers that the statue on public health emergencies was intended by the Legislature to supplement, and not supersede, the emergency powers granted her for natural disasters — including disease — and therefore the time limit doesn't apply.
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, nonessential 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 one Oregon county, however, has since received the state’s approval to begin loosening the coronavirus restrictions. In those counties, restaurants can provide dine-in service with 6 feet (2 meters) of social distancing and salons, gyms and other nonessential businesses can also reopen with strict safety precautions.