Oregon Governor Lifts Restrictions on Religious Freedom

SALEM, Ore. – Churches across Oregon will no longer face civil or criminal penalties for hosting gatherings that exceed numerical restrictions aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19.

On Dec. 18, one day after Governor Kate Brown extended Oregon’s current COVID-related state of emergency through early March, the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) issued its new “Sector Risk Level Guidance Chart.” OHA currently classifies its 38 counties according to one of four levels of COVID-related risk: “Extreme,” “High,” “Moderate,” and “Lower.”

Before Friday, churches in the 29 counties labeled “Extreme” could only host gatherings of up to 100 persons or 25 percent of their buildings’ capacity, whichever was smaller, lest they face civil penalties, fines, or even jail time for violating imposed restrictions. Under OHA’s new guidelines, those numbers are mere recommendations, meaning churches now have far more discretion concerning how many people they can accommodate.

“If churches want to invite their communities to Christmas Eve services now, they can,” said Ray Hacke, the Pacific Justice Institute’s Oregon-based attorney. “Even in light of the pandemic, it would have been an Ebenezer Scrooge-like move for the state to try and stop them.”

PJI has assisted churches, private schools, and other religious organizations in Oregon throughout the COVID-19 pandemic: After leading a charge against Governor Brown’s COVID-related executive orders on state constitutional grounds in late spring – to which the Governor responded by making some allowances for faith-based gatherings – PJI has helped religious organizations navigate a seemingly ever-shifting landscape of regulations on their right to assemble for religious purposes.

PJI has also stood at the ready to defend churches that felt compelled to defy Governor Brown’s orders by exercising their constitutional rights. In fact, PJI was prepared to file a lawsuit challenging the Governor’s most recent restrictions when Hacke learned of the new guidelines.

“The Supreme Court recently affirmed that even in a pandemic, states are obligated to respect religious freedom,” Hacke said, referring to the high court’s decision in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, issued just before Thanksgiving. “The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has had to reconsider some of its prior rulings upholding COVID-related gubernatorial executive orders restricting religious freedom in light of that decision. I think Oregon state officials saw the writing on the wall – any restrictions on faith-based gatherings, however well-intended, would be subject to challenge.”

Pursuant to her emergency powers, Governor Brown may rescind or amend her COVID-related executive orders at any time. Moving forward, however, Hacke remains confident that the Governor will honor churches’ religious rights – and promises PJI will take action if she doesn’t.

“What a wonderful decision for the Governor to respect the right of churches to meet right before Christmas,” PJI President Brad Dacus said. “It would have been devastating for most churches not to be able to host worshipers on what many Christians consider the holiest night of the year. I applaud Governor Brown for doing the right thing and trusting churches to host gatherings in a safe manner while accommodating as many people as possible.”