SALEM — A church here that last year joined nine other Oregon churches in a legal effort to overturn state COVID-19 restrictions has in recent weeks been hit very hard by the virus itself.
At least 87 people associated with Peoples Church, an Assemblies of God congregation at 4500 Lancaster Drive N.E., have contracted COVID-19, the Oregon Health Authority announced last month.
Among them were the church’s lead pastor, Scott Erickson, and his wife, Bonnie, both of whom were hospitalized in April.
Back at the church pulpit in mid-May, Erickson told attenders at a Mother’s Day service that he intended to continue holding in-person services in what he termed the “safe and anointed environment” of the church, the Statesman Journal newspaper of Salem reported.
According to the newspaper and other media, the state agency began investigating the outbreak in early April, but did not release information about it until May 5.
The Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration has not received any complaints about practices at the church. Oregon Health Authority declined to say whether it has taken any action against the church or worked with leaders to confront the outbreak.
Church officials declined to respond to media questions or give specifics about the outbreak. In an email on behalf of church leadership, spokesman Brent Kintz said they were concerned about the COVID-19 surge in the state and acknowledged that its impacts had included “the church family.”
In a video message posted to the church’s Facebook page in mid-April, Executive Pastor Tom Murray encouraged those who attend the church in person to physically distance, and to stay home if they are ill.
The newspaper said a resident of the surrounding Hayesville neighborhood, Christina Vejar, emailed Murray April 22 asking that the church halt in-person services and move to online only because of the church’s impacts on local health. Vejar shared his response, in which Murray attributed the increase in COVID-19 cases at the church to the overall increase in cases statewide. He said the church was promoting masks and social distancing, and cleaning the sanctuary between services.
Last May, the church was among 10 Oregon churches involved in a complaint filed by the Calilfornia-based Pacific Justice Institute that sought to overturn Gov. Kate Brown’s COVID-19 restrictions. The churches said the regulations violated constitutional protections for religious freedom. By year’s end, the state had backed off limiting church attendance, although social distancing and masks were still mandated.