Church that once sued over COVID-19 restrictions continues services after 74 people infected

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(CBS NEWS) — A church in Oregon is continuing to hold in-person services even after health officials said 74 people in the congregation contracted COVID-19. Following the coronavirus outbreak at People’s Church in Salem, the Oregon Health Authority has launched an investigation, the Associated Press reports.

The church frequently posts video updates on its Facebook page. In April, Pastor Tom Murray said in a video that there has been an increase in positive tests, hospitalizations and intensive care unit patients across the U.S. 

“Even within our church family, you’ve asked us to pray with you and pray for you as you told us about illness in your homes,” he said, adding that the church is open, but people who are sick should stay home and watch services online. He also assured members of the church that is is cleaned frequently and thoroughly. 

According to another Facebook post, Lead Pastor Scott Erickson and his wife, Bonnie, were both hospitalized with COVID-19 last month.

While the People’s Church has been severely affected by the pandemic, the church had previously joined a lawsuit to fight against COVID-19 restrictions. In May 2020, a nonprofit legal organization, Pacific Justice Institute, filed a lawsuit on behalf of 21 churches and individuals in Oregon.

The group – which included People’s Church, according to the Associated Press – sued Oregon Governor Kate Brown, “seeking to invalidate three of the coronavirus-related executive orders on constitutional procedural grounds.”

“Governor Brown’s executive orders are way too extreme and infringe on religious liberty far more than is necessary to preserve public health and safety,” institute President Brad Dacus said in a press release. “That’s why PJI is stepping up to put a stop to it.”

Oregon has reported 189,986 total case and 2,522 total deaths, according to the state’s health authority. Marion County, where People’s Church is located, has been considered “high risk” for transmission the past several months. Between April 30 and May 6 it was in the “extreme risk” category.

The nondenominational church was set to hold three services on Mother’s Day, Sunday, May 9, which were also live-streamed online. Facebook photos from pervious services show no masks and limited social distancing at the church, even though State Health Officer Dr. Dean Sidelinger said Friday masks should still be worn, even when vaccinated. 

Masks have been adopted by many U.S. cities as a way to slow the spread of coronavirus. While many states have seen a decrease of COVID-19 cases as more and more people get vaccinated, Oregon saw a 20% increase of new cases each week for five weeks. However, Sidelinger said last week, there was a small, 3%, decline in new cases.

CBS News has reached out to the People’s Church for comment and to the Oregon Health Authority for more information about their investigation.

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