Oregon Churches and Religious Leaders File Lawsuit Against Gov. Kate Brown Demanding She Allow Them to Reopen

The churches say Brown is impinging on their constitutional rights.

Ramona Quimby statue in Grant Park. (Brian Burk)

Ten churches and over a dozen religious leaders and congregants across Oregon filed a lawsuit in Baker County Circuit Court on May 6 demanding that Gov. Kate Brown allow them to reopen despite her executive orders.

The churches—located in cities ranging from Portland to Lincoln City—argue that Brown only had authority to extend her executive order 30 days, and that her executive powers expired April 7. The Baker City Herald first reported the lawsuit today.

"Plaintiffs have been irreparably harmed every day beyond April 7, 2020, the date on which the state of emergency declared in Executive Order 20-03 ceased to exist by law," the complaint says. "Plaintiffs have no adequate remedy at law beyond injunctive relief prohibiting defendant GOVERNOR from enforcing Executive Order 20-12 and any other orders that may impinge on Plaintiffs' constitutionally protected religious freedoms."

The plaintiffs include Elkhorn Baptist Church in Baker City, Calvary Chapel in Newberg, Calvary Chapel in Lincoln City, Calvary Chapel in Southeast Portland, New Horizon Christian Fellowship in Klamath Falls, Camas Valley Christian Fellowship, Peoples Church in Salem, Bend Community Church, Prepare the Way in Bend and Covenant Grace Church in Roseburg.

In addition, 20 individual religious leaders and congregants signed on as plaintiffs, including Brian Nicholson, the pastor of Trinity Presbyterian, James Thwing, a pastor at Lake Bible Church in Lake Oswego, Mark Russell, a leadership member at Cavalry Chapel in Lebanon, Ronald Rust, a pastor at Camas Valley Christian Fellowship, and Micah Agnew, the pastor of an unnamed church in Wallowa.

The churches ask the court to issue a temporary restraining order blocking the governor from enforcing the stay-home order against churches.

The plaintiffs also argue that COVID-19 cases and deaths in the state have not had serious enough impacts to merit the continued closure of places of worship.

"Twenty-four of Oregon's 38 counties have had no coronavirus-related deaths and relatively few coronavirus cases," the complaint says. "Only in the counties of Multnomah, Washington, and Marion, which boast the three highest totals of confirmed coronavirus cases in the state, have death tolls climbed into double digits—and even then, the percentage of deaths relative to the total number of cases in each county has not exceeded 6.1 percent."

The lawsuit says Brown failed to properly extend the state of emergency. Despite this, the plaintiffs argue, they have continued to comply with Brown's orders.

"Although they strongly believe, and not unreasonably, that Executive Order 20-12 impinges on their constitutionally protected religious rights to assemble and worship corporately and do other acts that the Bible requires, the plaintiff CHURCHES…have thus far complied with Executive Order."

Brown's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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