Judge Declares Oregon Governor’s Restrictions on Religious Gatherings ‘Null and Void’

May 18, 2020 Updated: May 18, 2020

A county judge in Oregon declared Gov. Kate Brown’s pandemic restrictions “null and void” because her emergency order was not approved by the state legislature after 28 days.

Baker County Circuit Judge Matthew Shirtcliff ruled Monday on a lawsuit that was filed by several churches who said social distancing measures were unconstitutional.

Ray Hacke, a lawyer who brought the legal challenge on behalf of religious organizations and businesses, told OPB that the ruling takes effect immediately.

“As of now, the orders are no longer in effect,” Hacke said. “The whole point is our clients have been irreparably harmed and they are being irreparably harmed every day they cannot practice.”

Shirtcliff, meanwhile, argued that churches suffered “irreparable harm” for not being able to exercise their religious freedoms.

“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 ruled, according to Oregon Live, finding that churches are able to undertake necessary social distancing precautions like grocery stores and other essential businesses have implemented.

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People line up to get their care kits containing many hard to find items including masks, sanitizing supplies, personal care items, and education materials at Lynn Technical High School in Lynn, Mass., on May 16, 2020. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images)

“This court understands that the current pandemic creates an unprecedented crisis in the state as well as in our country,” Shirtcliff ruled, adding that he has to protect health concerns against the right to freedom of worship.

Brown said she would immediately appeal the ruling.

“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,” the governor said in a statement following the ruling.

She added, “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.”

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Oregon Gov. Kate Brown speaks to the press in Roseburg, Ore., on Oct. 2, 2015. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The case involves executive orders that mandate businesses to close and prohibit dining at bars and restaurants throughout Oregon. Festivals, sporting events, and related events have also been shuttered.

Brown’s initial emergency declaration had lasted for 60 days, and earlier in May, she extended it for an additional 60 days. Shirtcliff found that the move was illegal, OPB reported.

“Because the Governor implemented statutory provisions, she is bound by them,” the judge wrote. “Thus, once the maximum 28-day time provisions… expired, the Governor’s Executive Order and all other orders were rendered null and void.”

Shirtcliff, the former district attorney of Baker County, was appointed by Brown last November.

The ruling comes as President Donald Trump pushes for states to reopen amid severe job losses as businesses were forced to shutter to curb the spread of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, a novel coronavirus that emerged in Wuhan, China, in 2019.

“Will some people be affected badly? Yes,” Trump said on May 5. “But we have to get our country open, and we have to get it open soon.”