By issuing a series of executive orders shutting down Oregon's economic and social life, Gov. Kate Brown slowed the spread of COVID-19 in the state.
She also galvanized conservative forces who are using her orders as an organizing tool.
Some of those forces are among the plaintiffs currently suing Brown in Baker County Circuit Court. They include 15 evangelical churches, three of the state's most conservative legislators, a law firm with decadelong ties to anti-LGBTQ legal campaigns, a self-styled county sheriff, and a former gubernatorial candidate.
"This [lawsuit] just snowballed," says Salem lawyer Ray Hacke of the Pacific Justice Institute, a California-based conservative civil liberties and religious freedom law firm. "Before I knew it, I was getting calls from pastors and churchgoers from literally all over the state."
This week, a Baker County circuit judge may decide whether the lawsuit is a serious threat to Brown's control of the state's pandemic response.
On May 6, Hacke's firm filed suit against Brown, challenging her emergency powers during the pandemic. The lawsuit seeks an injunction of Brown's March 8 emergency declaration so that churches can reopen for worship services without her blessing.
A handful of states across the country, including Kansas and Kentucky, have seen similar suits in the past two weeks. But in those states, plaintiffs relied heavily on a separation of church and state argument based on the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The plaintiffs in Oregon are arguing almost exclusively that the governor violated an article of the state's constitution.
The lawsuit claims Brown violated Article X-A of the Oregon Constitution, which says she had to hold a legislative session within 30 days of declaring the state of emergency. "This is not just a religious liberty case. This is a matter of holding Gov. Brown accountable to following the constitution," Hacke says. "She cannot unilaterally act."
Hacke is an acquaintance of Kevin Mannix, the former chairman of the Oregon Republican Party who ran in 2002 and 2006 for governor and spent decades drafting ballot measures to reshape Oregon's tax policies.
A few weeks ago, Hacke mentioned to Mannix that his firm was considering suing Brown. Mannix then connected Hacke to churches across the state.
"This is government gone wild," Mannix says, noting that Brown has issued over a dozen executive orders since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Oregon. "On April 7, she no longer had the power to rewrite laws. All of this stuff should have been taken to the Legislature."
And on May 11, as WW first reported, three lawmakers—some of the most conservative in the Legislature—joined as petitioners: state Sen. Dennis Linthicum (R-Klamath Falls), Rep. Bill Post (R-Keizer) and Rep. Mike Nearman (R-Independence).
"Places of worship are looking for one hour, once per week," Post tells WW. "How can we not have that, when we do have the above stores open 12 hours or more seven days a week?"
On May 12, several Eastern Oregon businesses and local officials signed onto the lawsuit, including Grant County Sheriff Glenn Palmer, who drew national attention in 2016 for openly sympathizing with an armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
The 15 churches signed on as plaintiffs appear to be overwhelmingly white, evangelical and conservative. Hacke credits four of the plaintiffs—all different branches of the charismatic Calvary Chapel, including one in Portland—for getting the lawsuit off the ground: "They've really rallied the troops," Hacke says of Calvary.
Hacke's group has a history of waging anti-LGBTQ legal battles. The law firm's founder, Brad Daucus, was a spokesman for California's Proposition 8, which sought to keep same sex marriage illegal.
His firm become more prominent in Oregon in the past two years. In 2018, it sued the Sutherlin School District for allowing a transgender student, who identified as a boy, to use the boys' restroom (the case was later dismissed). It is currently representing a group called Abolish Abortion Oregon, which is suing the city of Grants Pass for trying to curtail the group's ability to evangelize.
Western States Center, which watchdogs extremist groups in the Pacific Northwest, says it's concerned by the firm's ties. "We see this lawsuit as another example of a far-right group seeking to exploit this crisis to build political power," says deputy director Amy Herzfeld-Copple.
But the firm is making a serious legal argument, says Michael Fuller, a civil rights lawyer in Portland.
"Who knows how a court will rule, but it's not frivolous," Fuller says. "To test the law, you have to break the law. Gov. Brown is arguably testing the law with her orders."
The lawsuit's preliminary injunction hearing is scheduled for Thursday. Hacke says he is confident—and eager to return to worship at his church, Salem First Baptist. "The way our founders drafted both U.S. and state constitutions," he says, "there has to be a thumb on the scale in favor of freedoms."