Oregon Supreme Court: Churches’ Challenge Struck Down

New Multnomah County Courthouse

A group of churches and public officials in Baker County challenged Governor Brown’s executive orders aimed at slowing down COVID-19. On Friday, June 12, 2020, the Oregon Supreme Court struck down the churches’ challenge.

Previously, Judge Matthew Shirtcliff of the Baker County Circuit Court granted a preliminary injunction, which rejected a number of Governor Brown’s “Stay Home Save Lives” restrictions related to public gatherings and business operations. Judge Shirtcliff ruled that Governor Brown’s restrictions were unconstitutional.

Judge Shirtcliff’s decision was then heard by the Oregon Supreme Court. Governor Brown’s challengers conceded that the governor had the power to limit public gatherings and business operations during a pandemic. However, they argued that she could only do so for a period of 28 days. Attorneys for Governor Brown argued that the police powers granted to the governor in ORS chapter 401 authorize certain emergency powers.

While the plaintiffs in the Baker County case argued for a 28-day limit, other groups in locales across the country are rooting their arguments elsewhere. Such is the case where churches allege that stay home orders infringe on religious freedom, granted by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Governor Brown’s challengers raised this argument, but the Oregon Supreme Court chose not to address those allegations.

The Oregon Supreme Court considered other jurisdictional decisions, including the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as a lawsuit brought against the California Governor Gavin Newsom. In Jacobson v. Massachusetts, decided over one-hundred years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court supported elected officials’ broad power to respond to public health emergencies. In South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a request to suspend the California governor’s executive order placing limits on public gatherings in order to slow the spread of COVID-19.

As the global pandemic continues to affect communities across the nation, lawmakers and government officials face the continuing debate on whether restricting public gatherings and business operations violates the constitutional rights of Americans – both in their state constitutions as well as the U.S. Constitution. Only time will tell how other state courts – and federal courts – address challenges to these restrictions.

Denise Gorrell draws upon her extensive knowledge of restaurants and the wine industry to inform her real property and commercial law practice. She helps hospitality industry clients navigate complex, important issues such as business formation, real estate agreements, trademarks, OLCC rules and other governmental regulations.

Colleen Muñoz is a litigator at SYK. Her practice is centered around commercial and fiduciary litigation focusing on real property, employment, and construction law.