An Episcopal church is suing the City of Brookings over a new ordinance restricting how often churches can feed unhoused populations.
In October, city council passed an ordinance that requires churches to apply for a permit to offer “benevolent meal service,” which caps the number of free meals distributed to twice a week. According to Oregon Public Broadcasting, churches are the only nonprofits that serve free meals to homeless Brookings residents, through a multi-church collaborative effort called the Community Kitchen Project. When the city first passed the ordinance, representatives from St. Timothy’s Episcopal said it would continue to serve meals; last week, the church, represented by the Oregon Justice Resource Center, filed a lawsuit saying the ordinance prohibited the church from “exercising their religious beliefs” and was a violation of the church leadership’s first amendment rights.
The city adopted the ordinance following an official petition filed by the neighbors of St. Timothy’s. The complaints, which circulated in April, referred to the residents receiving meals as “vagrants” and “undesirables,” and said they introduced a public safety risk to the community. The petition was signed by 30 people.
According to the complaint, the city responded to the petition by penalizing St. Timothy’s, claiming the church was not complying with the city’s zoning laws. And when the church “did not accept the City’s suggestion that they stop engaging in Christian acts of service for the Brookings community, the City decided to rewrite the laws in an effort to force them to do so,” the lawsuit reads.
“The parishioners of St. Timothy’s are obeying the teachings of Jesus when they provide food and medical care to their community,” bishop Diana Akiyama says in a press release. “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.”
Janell Howard, the city manager for the City of Brookings, says the city has not formally received a filing of the lawsuit, and that the city does not comment on pending or active lawsuits. This story will be updated with more information.
• Church sues Brookings for restricting homeless meal services [OPB]
• Oregon coastal city limits number of meals churches can feed homeless [OPB]
• Text of complaint [R]
• Oregon Church Sues City That Limited Soup Kitchen Hours [NYT]
Updated Friday, February 4, 2021, at 12:19 p.m.: This story was updated to include comment from St. Timothy’s.