Two churches have sued Oregon Gov. Kate Brown over her executive order restricting faith-based gatherings to 25 people, calling it “irrational” to allow restaurants, bars and gyms to host larger crowds but not churches.
In a Tuesday filing, the conservative Alliance Defending Freedom asked a federal court to “immediately halt enforcement of the provision” in Executive Order 20-25 that limits religious gatherings to 25 people as part of the state’s novel coronavirus shutdown.
Violations of the executive order carry penalties of up to 30 days in jail and a $1,250 fine.
“In Douglas County Oregon, Pastor [Robert] Miller may be jailed for going to church with twenty-five other people on a Sunday morning, but can join those same people and more at a dine-in restaurant for Sunday lunch with no penalty,” said the lawsuit. “This is irrational and unconstitutional.”
The challenge comes as Oregon moves to lift restrictions on dine-in restaurants, bars, fitness clubs, hair salons and shopping malls in 34 of the state’s 36 counties under a phased-in reopening process.
The churches, which have been holding services online for two months, planned to resume services on Sunday under social-distancing and public-health protocols, but “the governor’s ban makes such services illegal and would subject the churches to possible criminal and civil penalties,” the lawsuit said.
Effective May 15, restaurants were permitted to open under social-distancing restrictions, such as keeping tables at least six feet apart and limiting parties to 10 people or fewer.
“While responding to crises can be difficult, this case is not,” said ADF legal counsel Caleb Dalton. “There is no legitimate justification for banning church services of 26 or more—with responsible social distancing and health and safety protocols—while allowing malls, gyms, restaurants, and retail establishments to fill to social-distancing capacity.”
The Pacific Justice Institute filed a lawsuit earlier this month on behalf of 10 churches and 21 individuals arguing that Ms. Brown’s executive orders have expired. The Oregon Supreme Court took up the case after suspending a Baker County judge’s May 18 ruling declaring the orders “null and void.”
The ADF represents Edgewater Christian Fellowship and Pastor Matthew Heverly in Josephine County, which had no active COVID-19 cases as of Sunday, and the Roseburg Church of God of Prophecy and Mr. Miller in Douglas County, which had two active cases. Each county recorded a total of 25 confirmed cases.
“Despite the minimal risk in Josephine County, the Governor’s Religious Assembly Ban is still preventing the Church from resuming in-person worship services,” said the lawsuit. “Limiting meetings to twenty-five or less would require the church to hold approximately 60 separate services and would require the Church to exclude many members who wish to attend.”
The Washington Times has reached out to the governor’s office for comment on the lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Eugene, Oregon.