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Oregon judge halts statewide coronavirus restrictions

An Oregon judge on Monday halted statewide coronavirus restrictions, ruling in favor of churches and congregants who challenged the measures as an unlawful infringement on their religious freedoms.

Circuit Judge Matt Shirtcliff's ruling temporarily suspends all of Gov. Kate Brown's (D) emergency coronavirus measures, not just those applying to religious gatherings. 

Brown vowed to immediately appeal to the Oregon Supreme Court.

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In lifting the restrictions, Shirtcliff said the church groups challenging the orders were likely to win a final ruling on the merits. Their initial showing persuaded him that the governor exceeded her statutory authority and that the health orders’ harms to religious and economic freedom outweigh public safety. 

“The public interest is furthered by allowing people to fully exercise their right to worship and conduct their business,” Shirtcliff wrote. “Additionally, the utilization of social distancing protocols without additional restrictions is in the public interest to restore individual liberties and the ability to restore economic viability in our communities.” 

Brown fired back on Twitter, calling it “irresponsible to dismiss the health risks and science behind our measures.”  

“The science behind my executive orders hasn’t changed: today’s ruling from the Baker County Circuit Court will be appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court within hours to keep my emergency orders in effect, ensuring we can continue to safeguard the health of all Oregonians,” she said

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The Oregon ruling is likely to generate additional momentum behind opponents of stay-at-home orders, who got a major boost last week when the Wisconsin Supreme Court invalidated the state’s coronavirus health order.

Legal experts say governors’ emergency powers are likely to wane as the pandemic persists.

“The longer the crisis wears on, the less compelling it is for the governor to characterize it as an emergency in which there’s no time for the legislature to weigh in,” said Lindsay Wiley of American University.

The Oregon judge ruled that Brown needed the state legislature to approve emergency declarations beyond 28 days.

--This report was updated on May 19 at 7:42 a.m.