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Churches sue Gov. Brown over Oregon coronavirus restrictions

Bend Community Church is among 10 plaintiffs

(Update: Adding video, comments from Bend pastor, law professor)

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Ten churches from around the state are suing Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, arguing her coronavirus stay-at-home orders are unconstitutional.

Oregon Public Broadcasting reports the lawsuit by the churches, including Elkhorn Baptist in Baker City, are being led by Common Sense for Oregon, a nonprofit led by former Republican candidate for governor Kevin Mannix.

The Pacific Justice Institute is arguing the case for the plaintiffs, which include Bend Community Church. The group says it “seeks to invalidate” three orders, starting with Brown’s initial emergency declaration, signed on March 8.

“The goal is simply to say that Gov. Kate Brown has really in effect thrown out the Oregon Constitution,” Stephen Williams, lead pastor at Bend Community Church, said Friday.

Williams’ church has about 20 parishioners and has not been able to hold an in-person service for more than a month. He said churches should be allowed to resume their normal schedules, as long as they practice social distancing.

“All the pastors I’m aware of want to be safe," he said. "(They) want to practice church responsibly, but they want to be involved in the process and be allowed to meet and take responsibility and practice social distancing.”

Lead attorney Ray Hacke said plaintiffs are all over the state.

“There’s a rising tide of churches and churchgoers wanting to push back against Governor Brown’s oppressive executive orders, and this case will hopefully remind her that she is not free to dispense with constitutionally protected liberties, even in emergencies,” Hacke said in a statement.

The suit argues that the governor's emergency powers only last for 30 days, and after that, Brown would have needed legislative approval.

Steven Green, a professor of religious studies and constitutional law at Willamette University, said the governor's lawyers will most likely argue that as governor, she has preexisting authority.  Through his experience practicing law, Green said this case is likely an uphill battle for churches involved.

"They would just make a claim that this violates their free exercise of religion," Green said. "I think they would lose rather quickly. I think the government would come in with a summary judgement or just a motion to dismiss, claiming the lawsuit is just unfounded." 

On Thursday, Brown outlined a detailed plan for beginning to reopen the state in the coming weeks, while stressing that reduced restrictions on businesses and residents could be rolled back, if the virus numbers increase.

Counties that have had few cases of the coronavirus and that can meet strict guidelines may be able to reopen certain businesses as early as May 15, including salons, gyms and limited sit-down restaurant service, under the first part of the plan.

Additionally, the state will loosen restrictions on day cares and retail shops statewide on May 15 while monitoring how infection levels respond.

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Jordan Williams

Jordan Williams is a multimedia journalist for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Jordan here.

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