SALEM, Ore. — Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has released guidance to “venue and event operators” as the state enters Phase Two of its reopening plan, allowing churches to facilitate up to 250 people for services — if the building will provide enough space to hold that many attendees with social distancing in place. Brown had recently been sued by a number of churches over restrictions limiting gatherings to 25 people.
The new guidance, issued on Wednesday, which applies to social, recreational, cultural, civic, and faith-based gatherings, states that venues should “[l]imit the gathering capacity to a maximum of 250 people or the number of people, including staff, based on a determination of capacity (square footage/occupancy …), whichever is less.”
Facilities are also to post signs abut social distancing requirements, provide handwashing stations or hand sanitizer, to encourage the use of face coverings, to ventilate with fans and/or open windows, and to stagger arrival and departures so the entrances and exits are not congested.
A number of churches had filed suit against Brown over the 25-person limit, including Edgewater Christian Fellowship and the Roseburg Church of God in Prophesy, which were represented by the religious liberties organization Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF).
“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. This is irrational
and unconstitutional,” the suit stated.
“Under Governor Brown’s Executive Order 20-25, Oregonians in Josephine County may workout in a gym or participate in fitness
classes in spaces up to max capacity with social distancing, but if they hold or attend a religious service with twenty-six people observing social distancing in the very same room (even one with capacity to seat over 1000) they are subject to a $1,250 fine and
jail time of up to thirty days,” it said.
A coalition of churches and individuals also sued in the case of Elkhorn Baptist Church v. Brown, represented in part by the Pacific Justice Institute, which argued that Brown’s executive order should have expired by now under Oregon law. Baker County Circuit Court Judge Matthew Shirtcliff issued a preliminary injunction in that case, but it was overruled by the state Supreme Court.
The matter remains before the high court as Shirtcliff declined to withdraw his injunction.
“There are no shortcuts for us to return to life as it was before this pandemic. Moving too quickly could return Oregon to the early days of this crisis, when we braced ourselves for hospitals to be overfilled and ventilators in short supply,” Brown said in a statement on May 18.
“The science remains clear: by physically distancing, wearing face coverings, staying home as much as possible and only gradually reopening our communities we can save lives and keep Oregonians safe,” she stated. “We all look forward to visiting our loved ones in nursing homes, sending our children to school, and going to the grocery store without fear of spreading this disease. But the simple fact remains, COVID-19 is here in Oregon, and lives are at stake.”
ADF expressed satisfaction on Thursday that Brown has now decided to allow larger numbers to assemble for church services, opining that it is only fair since gyms and restaurants are not bound to the 25-person limit.
“Government leaders can certainly concern themselves with public health and safety, but they can’t treat church services differently than other venues where people gather,” said legal counsel Caleb Dalton in a statement. “We commend Gov. Brown for adjusting her public health guidance to no longer single out churches or treat them worse than gyms, restaurants, and retail establishments. Churches and other houses of worship occupy a vital place in our communities, and they deserve the respect of government officials.”
ADF says that the churches will follow the safety requirements as outlined in the order.