State judge rules that Gov. Kate Brown’s coronavirus orders are invalid

Gov. Kate Brown listens in during a phone call with Vice President Mike Pence and other governors on Monday, April 20. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

A state judge in Baker County ruled Monday that Gov. Kate Brown’s restrictive orders related to the pandemic were void because they exceeded a state time limit. He issued a preliminary injunction sought by churches against the order that limited services.

While the ruling is a victory for opponents of the governor’s mandates, which have closed businesses, churches and large gatherings, Brown declared her intention to immediately appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court and seek an order keeping her restrictions in place.

Baker Circuit Court Judge Matthew Shirtcliff said that Brown’s executive orders cited as the legal basis a state law that “gives the governor power over the movement and gathering of citizens.” He said by law her orders could remain in effect only for 28 days, including her “stay at home” order of March 23 that also restricted or closed retail businesses.

Shirtcliff said that because of that limit, the executive order affecting churches “became null and void beyond the maximum 28-day time period.”

He said for that reason, several of her executives order were void.

The judge agreed that the orders infringed on Oregonian’s religious freedom rights. Shirtcliff wrote that churches could utilize social distancing and safety measures, similar to grocery stores and other businesses that have remained open under the order. 

In his opinion, Shirtcliff wrote that the 10 churches who sued to overturn Brown’s order “will be harmed by a deprivation of the constitutional right to freely exercise their religion.”

He said others who intervened in the case also demonstrated that there would be “great economic harm to their businesses and their ability to seek a livelihood. Indeed, criminal penalties can be imposed if they violate current restrictions.”

He said Brown could achieve her goal of protecting the public without the order, noting it was in the public interest to allow people “to fully exercise their right to worship and conduct their business.”

DOCUMENT: Judge’s order.

The lawsuit was brought by Ray Hacke, an attorney with the religious freedom advocacy group Pacific Justice Institute, on behalf of churches across the state. Kevin Mannix, a Salem attorney long involved in state politics, later joined the lawsuit on behalf of businesses across the state. 

Shortly after the ruling, Brown took to Twitter to say that she acted on the best science and that the state risks another mass outbreak of COVID-19 “without the tools that have proven to be effective in protecting our families, neighbors and loved ones from this disease.”

“The science behind my executive orders hasn’t changed: 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, ensuring we can continue to safeguard the health of all Oregonians,” she said. 

This story will be updated.

CORRECTION: Gov. Kate Brown was going to seek a stay of the injunction but the judge’s order for now remains in effect. The story originally incorrectly said the stay was in place. The Enterprise apologizes for the error.