Oregon City Can’t Limit Church’s Food Ministry to the Homeless, Court Rules

A city in Oregon violated a church’s rights by stopping it from providing free meals to the homeless several days per week amid complaints from neighbours, a federal judge ruled. Judge Mark Clarke of the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon ruled that the city of Brookings could not enforce a 2021 ordinance preventing St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church from feeding the homeless. Brookings unanimously passed Ordinance 21-O-795, which required food providers to get a conditional use permit to operate in a residential zone. The new ordinance restricted permit holders to providing food twice a week. This interfered with St. Timothy’s ability to do outreach in the community, which they had undertaken since 2009 and eventually expanded to several days a week. The ordinance was enacted after neighbours complained about “vagrants” showing up at odd hours of the night and engaging in “suspicious behaviour.” Clarke concluded that the church’s actions were protected by the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which seeks to protect churches from discriminatory zoning laws and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

“As a preliminary matter, there can be no genuine question that St. Timothy’s feeding ministry is a sincerely held religious belief,” wrote Clarke, adding that “feeding the hungry and caring for the most vulnerable members of a community is at the very heart and foundation of the Christian tradition.” “Here, the Ordinance violates RLUIPA because there is no genuine dispute that (1) the Ordinance is a land use regulation that substantially burdens [Plaintiffs’] feeding ministry, which is an exercise of Plaintiffs’ religion; (2) the City has not articulated a ‘compelling government interest’ served by burdening that exercise; and, even if the City had identified a compelling interest, (3) the Ordinance is not the least restrictive means to achieve it.” The Rev. Bernie Lindley of St. Timothys said that the homeless ministry is “the way we express our faith,” specifically by “caring for people who are on the margins, especially people who are hungry.” “We knew that we weren’t going to be able to comply with their ordinance,” Lindley continued. “We knew that it was unconstitutional and so we reluctantly filed a lawsuit.”

Lindley said he did not want to engage in litigation, noting that “when we’re involved in a lawsuit, we can’t talk” and “have to talk through our lawyers,” which he believes is “not an official way to make our community a better place.” The city has an abatement in place, which the church is appealing. City officials are also asking the church to stop providing showers and other services for the local homeless. In 2022, the church filed a lawsuit, arguing that the ordinance violated their religious freedom rights. “Plaintiffs now face the decision of whether to exercise their core religious beliefs or face enforcement action by the city. Plaintiffs intend to continue exercising their core religious beliefs and serving meals at St. Timothy’s four days per week,” read the lawsuit, in part. “Plaintiffs do not intend to restrict their religious exercise to two days or fewer per week because the community need is greater than serving meals only twice per week.” Brookings City Manager Janelle Howard told Oregon Public Broadcasting in 2021 that the new ordinance came in response to a petition by residents who claimed to have been negatively impacted by the food ministry.

“They were looking for some relief because it was becoming an impact to their particular neighbourhood, whether they mentioned trespassing, littering, noise,” Howard said. “They were asking for some kind of relief from the city.” Howard said city officials have the authority to institute such restrictions because the church is in a residential zone instead of a commercial zone. “If they were in commercial zones, there would be no limitations to the frequency, or the hours, or the number of days a week,” Howard added.

Source: Christian Post

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