The Oregon Supreme Court has kept statewide virus restrictions in place by halting a judge’s order to end them in a lawsuit claiming the governor exceeded her authority when she shut down in-person religious services.
Baker County Circuit Judge Matthew Shirtcliff ruled Monday that Gov. Kate Brown erred by not seeking the Legislature’s approval to extend her stay-at-home orders beyond a 28-day limit. Brown’s lawyers appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court, which just hours later put a hold on Shirtcliff’s decree until the high court’s justices can review the matter.
Presiding Justice Thomas Balmer gave both sides until Friday to submit legal briefs. He did not give a timeline for a decision.
The lower court judge had issued his opinion in response to a lawsuit filed earlier this month by 10 churches around Oregon that argued the state’s social distancing directives were unconstitutional.
In a statement late Monday, Brown, a Democrat, praised the state Supreme Court action.
“There are no shortcuts for us to return to life as it was before this pandemic. Moving too quickly could return Oregon to the early days of this crisis, when we braced ourselves for hospitals to be overfilled,” she said.
Kevin Mannix, an attorney representing businesses in the case, said Tuesday that he was encouraged that the state Supreme Court seemed to be taking the case seriously. Normally, briefings in cases before the court wouldn’t be due until June 1, he said.
“Every day that the governor’s order remains in effect, people are prevented from being able to assemble peaceably, their free expression rights are limited … and most significantly, their freedom of religion rights are restricted,” he said. “This extraordinary power that she’s been exercising has a time limit on it.”
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.