© 2023 | Jefferson Public Radio
Southern Oregon University
1250 Siskiyou Blvd.
Ashland, OR 97520
541.552.6301 | 800.782.6191
a service of Southern Oregon University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Deschutes County Could Defy Gov. Brown On Opening Churches

Deschutes County offices in Bend, May 19, 2020
Deschutes County offices in Bend, May 19, 2020

In Central Oregon, an all-Republican county commission is challenging Democratic Gov. Kate Brown’s authority to limit the size of faith gatherings during the pandemic.

Deschutes County officials drafted an “order concerning restrictions on worship” without consulting the county’s own health director. It would direct county employees not to enforce restrictions limiting religious gatherings to 25 people, and not to help state employees enforcing those rules either.

Even with two out of three commissioners signalling support for the resolution, they delayed voting on it at a special meeting on Thursday.

“This is a message for the governor that religion is important to a significant portion of Oregonians,” said County Chair Patti Adair.

Adair’s push for the order is just the latest example of politics, religious freedom and public health guidelines clashing in more rural parts of Oregon, where the governor’s executive orders already lack enforcement, and religious groups have challenged their legitimacy in court.

Deschutes Commissioner Phil Henderson said he supported the county refusing to enforce Brown’s policies, even though he’d gotten more comments from constituents against his opinion than in favor of it.

“That was the whole point of the Bill of Rights, was to protect the minority. … And apparently, given the vitriolic comments we’ve received by so many citizens about us taking this action, there are a lot of people that don’t respect the interests and rights of people that want to worship the way they want to worship,” Henderson said.

He contended that “a lot of people aren’t affected by a change like this, because it’s not their church we’re talking about, but they have real strong opinions about it.”

Religious gatherings have spread COVID-19, both in Oregon and across the world. Among 92 attendees at a rural Arkansas church during one week in March, 35 people contracted COVID-19, and three people died, according to a report published last week by the CDC

“The [Deschutes County] Board of Commissioners is confident that members of religious congregations within our community will exercise good and sound judgment as to how to gather to worship in a reasonably safe manner,” reads a draft of the county’s order.

Commissioner Tony Debone said he agreed with the spirit of the text, but wasn’t on board.

“To say a local jurisdiction is going to ignore the rules ... I just don’t see it as the tool for this,” DeBone said.

County health department director George Conway confirmed Wednesday that he was not consulted on the order, nor was he aware of it until OPB contacted him.

Health department spokesperson Morgan Emerson followed up in a text message to say officials were ready to provide technical assistance.

“Our public health team is available to help any Deschutes County business or organization plan to reopen safely, including developing protocols for safe physical distancing and cloth face coverings,” Emerson said.

Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson has already said he won’t enforce the governor’s emergency orders. As The Bulletin reported, deputies even assisted organizers of a barrel racing event in March. 

Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum said in an emailed statement that “even as certain counties enter different phases of a gradual re-opening, the relevant executive orders remain in place and all Oregonians are asked to continue to comply with them.  We really appreciate everyone’s cooperation as we navigate an unprecedented public health crisis in our state.” 

Deschutes County began a phased reopening May 15, right after the governor and state health authorities approved the county’s plan, a road map of resources it will need to track and contain COVID-19 outbreaks.

The county was approved for reopening despite a surge in cases linked to social gatherings and questions about local contact tracing capacity. Deschutes could qualify for Phase 2 by June 5, which could allow for gatherings of up to 100 people with the governor’s blessing.

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Emily Cureton Cook is OPB’s Central Oregon Bureau Chief. She's the former producer of the Jefferson Exchange on JPR and has contributed award-winning programming to Georgia Public Broadcasting. Emily is a graduate of the University of Texas in Austin where she earned degrees in history, studio art and Russian.