One Oregon church is claiming its religious liberties have been violated after city officials restricted the number of times its benevolent ministry can feed the homeless.
St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Brookings announced in late January it filed a lawsuit against the city in response to a new ordinance approved by the town council, NPR reported this week. The new rule requires a permit for “benevolent meal service” and restricts it to no more than twice a week.
As churches are the only nonprofits offering meals to the homeless, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting, ministers at St. Timothy’s have argued it is a violation of congregants’ religious freedoms. The Episcopal church stated Jan. 28 the ordinance places limits on “the congregation’s free expression of their Christian faith.”
Prior to the new rule, the Rev. Bernie Lindley and his fellow church members provided meals, showers, and a food bank for the city’s homeless population. The church also held a COVID-19 vaccination clinic for those down on their luck.
Those services, though, were concerning to Brookings residents. Those living nearby St. Timothy’s claimed there has been an uptick in trespassing and other disturbances since the church began offering aid to the homeless. As a result, locals filed a petition with the city council, urging members to restrict the church’s benevolent ministry.
Council members did just that, which prompted the lawsuit by the church and the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon.
“We’ve been serving our community here for decades and picking up the slack where the need exists and no one else is stepping in,” Lindley said in a statement. “We have no intention of stopping now and we’re prepared to hold fast to our beliefs. We won’t abandon the people of Brookings who need our help, even when we’re being threatened.”
Per Newsweek, the newly approved municipal code states: “Organizations or individuals providing benevolent meal services may serve meals to the public up to two days per week between the hours of 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. No benevolent meal service shall last more than three hours per day.”
But, as the reverend said, the church is fighting back.
Walter Fonseca, an attorney with the Oregon Justice Resources Center, said the newly minted ordinance “infringe[s] our clients’ constitutional right to the free exercise of their religion as well as violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.”
“The city of Brookings is attempting, without justification, to restrict Father Bernie and the congregants of St. Timothy’s right to worship as their conscience dictates,” he continued.
Oregon-based lawyer Samantha Sondag of Stoel Rives argued St. Timothy’s meal program “is not only a vital service for many but also a protected expression of faith,” adding, “Father Bernie and the church have the right to continue practicing their beliefs by assisting those in need, as they have for decades.”
As for city officials, Mayor Ron Hedenskog said at the time of the council’s unanimous vote that the town was trying to accommodate both the church and concerned residents, the Wild Rivers Outpost reported.
“There is nobody on this council that has made an attack on St. Timothy’s whatsoever,” he said. “It’s not because we’re all wicked. It’s because we’re meeting needs [to serve] a dual purpose. There are other ways to explain what’s going on without vilifying the City Council. I’m upset over this. I’ve been upset over it for weeks. There has never been a statement from this council or staff about shutting down benevolent kitchens. We’re looking to strike an equilibrium.”
It’s worth noting St. Timothy’s has not acted alone; since the pandemic began, the Episcopal congregation has been partnering with other churches to ensure Brookings’ homeless and underfed populations have received free meals.
Oregon’s homeless population is around 14,655 people, according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.
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