Oregon city sued by diocese over ordinance restricting church's homeless ministry

A volunteer helps give food to the needy at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church of Brookings, Oregon. In January 2022, the church and its diocese filed suit against Brookings city officials over an ordinance restricting their homeless ministry. | YouTube/KGW News

An Episcopal diocese and a congregation have filed a lawsuit against an Oregon city over a new ordinance that limits their ministry’s ability to feed the homeless amid complaints from neighbors. 

The Episcopal Diocese of Oregon and St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church filed the complaint against the city of Brookings last Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon, Medford Division.

At issue is the Brookings City Council’s unanimous passing of Ordinance 21-O-795 last year requiring food providers to get a conditional use permit to operate in a residential zone.

Even with the conditional use permit, which churches can apply for without a fee, St. Timothy’s would be limited to serving food to the needy for only two days per week.

“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,” the lawsuit reads.

“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.”

The legal document alleges that the city’s approach changed in April 2021 after the city council received a petition from local residents criticizing “the congregation of vagrants or
undesirables” at St. Timothy’s. 

“Rather than create or expand social services for Brookings residents in need, the City took steps to remove their last safety net, beginning a campaign to force St. Timothy’s to significantly reduce the services that it has offered on its premises for decades,” the lawsuit maintains. 

The complaint accuses city officials of violating the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which, among other things, protects religious groups from discriminatory zoning codes.

The Rt. Rev. Diana Akiyama, bishop of the Oregon diocese, said in a statement that she believes the congregation is “obeying the teachings of Jesus when they provide food and medical care to their community.”

“As Christians, we are called by faith to feed the hungry and welcome the stranger. Providing hospitality to all who enter St. Timothy’s in search of help is integral to our beliefs,” the bishop contends.

Brookings City Manager Janelle Howard told Oregon Public Broadcasting that the new ordinance came in light of the April 2021 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 neighborhood, whether they mentioned trespassing, littering, noise,” Howard said last October. “They were asking for some kind of relief from the city.”

Howard argued that city officials had the authority to institute such restrictions on St. Timothy’s because it is located 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 said.

In a statement, Rev. Bernie Lindley said that the church has been serving the community for decades, “picking up the slack where the need exists and no one else is stepping in.” He said the church has provided health clinics, food bank, vaccinations, showers, internet access and other services. He said the church grew its homeless feeding program when most other churches in the area suspended their free meal services during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

According to the diocese’s statement, St. Timothy’s has refused to apply for a permit with the city because it limits how often meals can be served.

“We have no intention of stopping now and we’re prepared to hold fast to our beliefs,” Lindley said. “We won’t abandon the people of Brookings who need our help, even when we’re being threatened.”

The church and diocese are represented by Stoel Rives LLP and the Oregon Justice Resource Center.

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