Nine days after Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of two Oregon churches, Gov. Katherine Brown has issued new COVID-19 guidance that relaxes restrictions on church gatherings. The June 4 guidance revises the state’s public health ordinance to no longer treat churches worse than secular venues such as dine-in restaurants or gyms.
The Josephine and Douglas county churches are planning to resume in-person worship services on June 7 with strict social distancing and health and safety protocols and can now do so without facing criminal and civil penalties. The governor’s previous ban allowed pastors to be jailed up to 30 days and fined $1,250 for going to church with 25 other people on a Sunday morning, when they could join those same people and more at a dine-in restaurant for Sunday lunch without penalty. The governor’s new guidance allows churches and other venues in counties that enter Phase II to host up to 250 people indoors so long as the facility can host that many while maintaining social distancing between groups.
“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 ADF Legal Counsel Caleb Dalton. “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.”
In preparation for resuming in-person worship services, the churches are adopting plans to follow strict social distancing and health and safety protocols. The churches have voluntarily implemented precautions including making hand sanitizer available to attendees; encouraging the use of masks; taking various measures to direct traffic flow; requiring all ushers greeting or directing attendees to wear face coverings; prohibiting any handouts to be passed to attendees during services; directing attendees to sanctuary seating designed to provide six feet of separation between families and individuals; and prohibiting snacks or coffee from being served.
“Punishing churches while allowing other venues to have greater freedom is both illogical and unconstitutional, and we’re grateful the governor has updated her guidance to address our concerns,” said ADF Senior Counsel Ryan Tucker, director of the ADF Center for Christian Ministries. “We’re disappointed that it took a federal lawsuit for Gov. Brown to correct the obvious constitutional problem with issuing a church ban, but we’re encouraged that our clients have the opportunity to meet for worship without facing harassment or fines. We support authorities’ efforts to prioritize the public’s health and safety, but people of faith should be free to assemble as others are permitted.”
Attorney Steve Elzinga is serving as co-counsel in the lawsuit, Edgewater Christian Fellowship v. Brown, for the churches.