Churches across Oregon and Washington 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 — just one week before Christmas and one day after Gov. 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.”
On Dec. 22, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee followed suit, lifting the hard cap of 200 people for churches and other religious gatherings.
Back in May, Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys had filed suit against Inslee in federal court on behalf of a Spokane church, after the governor laveled spiritual gatherings as COVID-19 “superspreader” events and enacted restrictions on church meetings.
Until the 18th, churches in the 29 Oregon 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.
Ray Hacke of Salem, Oregon-based attorney for California-based Pacific Justice Institute (PJI), noted that the changes meant churches were suddenly free to invite their congregations to Christmas Eve services. “Even in light of the pandemic, it would have been an Ebenezer Scrooge-like move for the state to try and stop them,” he said.
PJI has assisted churches, private schools, and other religious organizations in Oregon throughout the COVID-19 pandemic: It led a charge against 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 was set to file a lawsuit challenging her 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.