Ore. to allow up to 250 to attend church if social distancing guidelines are met

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown speaks after being sworn in at the state capital building in Salem, Oregon on February 18, 2015. | (Photo: Reuters/Steve Dipaola)

Oregon Gov. Katherine Brown has announced new guidelines that would ease restrictions on in-person worship services that she implemented in March in response to the coronavirus.

On Thursday, Brown approved moving 26 counties into phase two of reopening, which includes allowing houses of worship to hold indoor gatherings of no more than 50 people as long as they follow social distancing guidelines.

Brown said at a news conference Wednesday that this will include raising all indoor restrictions to 50 people and outdoor gatherings to 100 people.

The governor added that if social distancing guidelines are met, up to 250 people can be in a building at the same time. 

“Counties that are approved to move into phase two will be able to relax some of the restrictions that have been in place in phase one and some sectors will be able to be reopened,” Brown said, as reported by KTVL.

Under Brown's restrictions, people who don't comply with the state's orders will continue to face a class C misdemeanor which is punishable by a fine of up to $1,200, up to 30 days in jail, or both. 

The announcement comes days after two churches, Edgewater Christian Fellowship and Roseburg Church of God of Prophecy, sued the governor over earlier restrictions.

Represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, the churches said that Executive Order 20-25 unfairly limited churches to 25 attendees while exempting entities such as workplaces, schools, and grocery stores.

The two churches are based in Josephine County and Douglas County, both of which were approved for the eased restrictions on Thursday.

In a statement released Thursday, ADF Legal Counsel Caleb Dalton declared victory, noting that religious bodies were now being treated equally to secular entities, including restaurants and gyms.

“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,” Dalton said.

“Churches and other houses of worship occupy a vital place in our communities, and they deserve the respect of government officials.”

As with other states, Oregon’s measures restricting in-person gatherings to curb the spread of the new coronavirus has led to several lawsuits. 

In May, Baker County Circuit Judge Matthew Shirtcliff ruled in favor of a different group of churches that argued state restrictions on in-person gatherings were unconstitutional.

Shirtcliff concluded that the governor had exceeded her authority by limiting business operations and worship services for more than the 28 days governors are allowed under Oregon law.

However, the Oregon Supreme Court halted the lower court injunction against the orders, pending further legal action, allowing them to remain in effect.

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