Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys representing two Oregon churches filed suit in federal court Tuesday against Gov. Katherine Brown to challenge a provision of her executive order that allows pastors to be jailed up to 30 days and fined $1,250 for going to church with 25 other people on a Sunday morning, when they can join those same people and more at a dine-in restaurant for Sunday lunch with no penalty.
The Josephine and Douglas county churches are planning to resume in-person worship services on May 31 with strict social distancing and health and safety protocols, but the governor’s ban makes such services illegal and would subject the churches to possible criminal and civil penalties. The lawsuit indicates that a motion for a temporary restraining order is forthcoming that asks the court to immediately halt enforcement of the provision.
As of May 24, Josephine County had no active COVID-19 cases, and Douglas County had only two, with one person hospitalized and the other at home. Brown’s order singles out cultural, civic, and faith-based gatherings, banning them from holding gatherings of 25 or more people while allowing numerous secular gatherings that exceed that number, including shopping malls, retail stores, schools, ski resorts, and offices.
“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.”
In preparation for resuming in-person worship services, the churches are adopting plans to follow strict social distancing and health and safety protocols. The churches have voluntarily implemented precautions including making hand sanitizer available to attendees; encouraging the use of masks; taking various measures to direct traffic flow; requiring all ushers greeting or directing attendees to wear face coverings; prohibiting any handouts to be passed to attendees during services; directing attendees to sanctuary seating designed to provide six feet of separation between families and individuals; and prohibiting snacks or coffee from being served.
“Singling out churches for special punishment while allowing others to have greater freedom not only makes no logical sense, it’s clearly unconstitutional, just as others have warned the governor,” said ADF Senior Counsel Ryan Tucker, director of the ADF Center for Christian Ministries. “Gov. Brown has had plenty of opportunity to correct the obvious constitutional problem with issuing a church-specific ban and has chosen not to. We support authorities’ efforts to prioritize the public’s health and safety, but people of faith should be free to assemble if other groups are free to assemble.”
ADF attorneys filed Edgewater Christian Fellowship v. Brown in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon, Eugene Division. Attorney Steve Elzinga is serving as co-counsel in the case for the churches.