Ten congregations in the state have filed suit challenging the governor's lock down on individuals and businesses to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
In a suit filed Wednesday, May 6, in Baker County Circuit Court, Calvary Chapel Newberg and nine other plaintiffs claim that Gov. Kate Brown's orders requiring social distancing and other measures violate their religious freedoms and exceed her constitutional authority.
Senior Pastor John Terry of Calvary Chapel Newberg said in a prepared statement the churches who signed onto the lawsuit don't question the governor's intent to keep Oregon citizens safe.
"However, we respectfully submit that Gov. Brown's executive orders are in violation of our constitutional rights," he added, citing specifically the First Amendment's guarantees of freedom to assemble and worship.
Terry argues that the church in essence "is a hospital of sorts" and, as such, is a necessary component of the community that should remain open, "especially when people are experiencing hopelessness and despair in these very stressful days."
Brown's edicts are particularly egregious, the churches maintain, in light of moves to relax restrictions on other aspects of Oregon society.
"To look toward opening bars, marijuana dispensaries, gymnasiums and wine tasting rooms while not recognizing the necessary role the church of the living God plays in key aspects of our society is, in our minds, a travesty," Terry said.
The Salem attorney who filed the lawsuit on the churches' behalf, Ray Hacke, said the decision whether congregations should gather together should be their's alone.
"If we're risking our lives to go to church, if we survive, great," Hacke told the Oregonian. "If we die, then we're going to heaven. If we want to take that risk, then it's on us."
Hacke filed the lawsuit on behalf of the churches, more than 20 individuals and the Pacific Justice Institute, a Sacramento, California-based nonprofit legal defense group that represents churches and individuals in religious freedom, parental rights and civil rights cases.
The plaintiffs and their counsels additionally claim that Brown violated her constitutional authority by not seeking approval of three-fifths of state House and Senate members before issuing the orders.
"Because (the) governor failed to avail herself of the constitutionally prescribed procedure, her initial executive order declaring the public health emergency, issued on March 8 … terminated by operation of law on April 7 … and all subsequent executive orders implementing or extending the original order are legally null and void," the plaintiffs wrote in the lawsuit.
In addition to Calvary Chapel Newberg, the churches named as plaintiffs in the suit are Elkhorn Baptist Church in Baker City, Calvary Chapel Lincoln City, Calvary Chapel Southeast Portland, New Horizon Christian Fellowship in Klamath Falls, Camas Valley Christian Fellowship, Peoples Church in Salem, Prepare The Way religion nonprofit ministry in Bend, Bend Community Church and Covenant Grace Church in Roseburg.
From a local standpoint, churches began fighting the pandemic before the state, Terry said.
"We take this disease very seriously, not recklessly," he said. "We proactively closed our church on March 13 when gatherings under 250 people were still allowed. This was prior to the governor's order on March 17 limiting gatherings to under 25 people, then her issuing (an executive order) on March 23 which shut the state.
"Our own precautions exceeded the governor's by 10 days. Since then we have been and currently are voluntarily complying with the governor's proclamations. There is no aspect or a lack of concern for our congregants or for our community — actually the opposite is true as this crisis wears on. When we do reopen it will be with utmost caution and attention given to the safety of both our congregants and our community. This includes distancing, limiting size, sanitation measures, etc."
"We are simply asserting our constitutional right to assemble without government interference," Terry added. "Our intent, going forward, is to continue to protect our congregation and community as much as we are able …"
The lawsuit seeks to have Brown's orders rendered invalid by the court and immediately terminated, allowing churches and others to begin gathering. It also seeks attorney costs and fees in arguing the case.
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