(Reuters) - Oregon’s Supreme Court has upheld Governor Kate Brown’s executive orders imposing restrictions on business and public gatherings amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The court said in an unsigned opinion Friday that state law did not put a time limit on the effect of emergency orders, as the plaintiffs, a group of churches, had argued.
The decision reversed a lower court ruling.
”I am proud of the work done by my legal teams at (Oregon’s Department of Justice) to keep these rules in place and keep us all safe,” Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum wrote on Twitter in response to the decision.
Ray Hacke of the Pacific Justice Institute, a lawyer for the churches, could not immediately be reached for comment.
The churches sued the state on May 6, arguing that Brown’s orders, including one mandating the closure of churches during the pandemic, expired after 28 days under the state’s emergency powers law.
Lawsuits challenging similar restrictions have been filed in multiple states. Courts in most states have rejected these challenges, with the notable exception of Wisconsin, whose Supreme Court struck down pandemic measures imposed by Governor Tony Evers.
The churches in this case sought a preliminary injunction strking down the orders. They argued that without an injunction, they faced immediate harm because they would lose their constitutionally-protected right to freely practice religion, though they did not argue that the orders were unconstitutional.
On May 18, Baker County Circuit Court Judge Matthew Shirtcliff granted the preliminary injunction motion, effectively striking down Brown’s orders.
Brown immediately petitioned the Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus. On May 19, the Supreme Court put the injunction on hold while that petition was pending.
In Friday’s order, the court found that Shirtcliffe had improperly relied on a 2003 state law that allows the governor to impose restrictions in light of a public health emergency. Such restrictions expire in 28 days.
The Supreme Court, however, found that Brown’s orders were issued pursuant to the state’s broader emergency powers statute, which carries no time limit.
”Thus, the circuit court’s issuance of the preliminary injunction was based on a fundamental legal error,” the court wrote.
Since the case began, some churches in Oregon have been allowed to reopen as the state relaxes its pandemic restrictions.
The case is Elkhorn Baptist Church et al v. Brown, Oregon Supreme Court, No. S06773.
For the churches: Ray Hacke of the Pacific Justice Institute
For the governor: Solicitor General Benjamin Gutman