Last week, Brookings, Oregon, passed a new ordinance that limits churches in residential-zoned areas to serve meals only two days a week and requires them to apply for special city permits in order to operate their soup kitchens, reports OPB.
The city says that the new ordinance was crafted in response to concerns raised by neighbors near the local St. Timothy's Episcopal Church about the crime and vagrancy that its homeless services were bringing to the surrounding area.
But Bernie Lindley, the reverend of St. Timothy's, says that the new permitting system is an unconstitutional restriction on his and his parishioners' religious duty to feed the hungry and that any attempt by the city to fine him for serving too many meals will result in a lawsuit.
"What we're doing is what churches do. Churches feed people," he tells Reason. "To tell a church that they have to be limited in how they live into the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a violation of our First Amendment right to freely practice our religion."
For years, St. Timothy's and other churches and charitable outfits in Brookings have been providing free meals to the area's poor through their joint Community Kitchen Project. Each participating organization took one or two days a week to serve food to the needy from their own property.
But the onset of the pandemic saw some of the participating churches stop offering their charitable meal service. In response, St. Timothy's picked up the slack and started offering meals six days a week.
The increased meal service was accompanied by a change in the type of people that the church was serving. Expanded federal food aid during the pandemic saw many of the poor-but-housed people stop showing up as much, while the number of homeless people being served by the church increased.
St. Timothy's was also the only church in town to participate in the city's emergency vehicle camping program, a pandemic-era program that permitted consenting religious institutions to let people sleep in cars in church parking lots.
In the end, the vehicle camping program proved to be more than St. Timothy's and its congregation could handle. Many of the people who wound up sleeping at the church had physical and psychological needs that the church was not equipped to meet. The stress of the pandemic exacerbated some of the site occupants' mental health issues, while also leading to simultaneous restrictions in the availability of mental health services.
"They can hold it together when things are going fine, but when difficulties come, stress comes their way, they can't self-regulate anymore," says Lindley of the people his church was trying to help. Several people ended up having psychotic episodes, he says. Fights broke out. The police had to be called more than once.
None of this sat well with the neighbors.
In April 2021, 30 people signed a petition demanding that the city "reconsider allowing vagrants to continue to live and congregate at St. Timothy's Church." It listed a number of ill effects the people gathering at the church had visited on the neighborhood, including trespassing, theft, littering, fights, and even "child neglect."
Janelle Howard, Brookings' city manager, said that petition resulted in the city council instructing city staff to come up with ways to limit the neighborhood impacts of the homeless population at St. Timothy's.
She says that process resulted in the discovery that all the city's soup kitchen operations were technically illegal.
The Oregon Health Authority, the state's top food safety regulator, regulates so-called "benevolent" kitchens the same as normal, commercial restaurants. Howard says that the churches in Brookings were therefore engaged in a commercial activity that's not allowed in the city's residential neighborhoods. And all of the city's churches happen to be in residential zoned neighborhoods.
In response, the city held a number of workshops and public meetings—which Howard says included many of the churches in town—to try and come up with a program that would permit residentially zoned houses of worship to continue offering charitable meal service while lessening the impacts on nearby homeowners.
Lindley says he participated in the early rounds of these talks, but then dropped out once it became clear the city intended to put limits on the number of days his church could serve meals, a condition he found intolerable.
In the end, the ordinance the city council passed requires churches to obtain a conditional use permit in order to offer food service up to two times a week and up to three hours a day. The program also comes with requirements that places serving meals have a certain number of parking spaces. (Howard says that shouldn't be an issue for any churches, given that the pre-existing parking requirements for religious institutions are higher than they are for the new soup kitchen permits.)
On paper, this was actually a liberalization of Brookings' laws on technically illegal soup kitchens. In practice, it means that these once-unregulated kitchens will now have to get explicit permission from the city to continue serving meals.
For most of the churches in town, the new limits aren't controversial given that they were only serving one or two meals a week before the pandemic.
But Lindley sees the city's new two-day limit as a major imposition. For starters, St. Timothy's is currently offering meals four days a week, and the church has no plans to scale that back at the moment. Lindley also expressed concern that if another church had to stop its meal service—because it had a COVID outbreak, say—the city's new limits wouldn't allow other churches to quickly fill that gap.
He also contends that the new ordinance is addressing a problem that's already been solved.
St. Timothy's stopped allowing vehicle camping on its property in June, mitigating many of the issues the neighbors were complaining about. The new two-day limit on meal service won't lessen any impacts on the surrounding neighborhood given several of the other churches that run soup kitchens are located only a couple blocks away, Lindley adds.
Howard, the city manager, says that Brookings is not trying to crack down on soup kitchens but rather to ensure they operate in appropriate areas, noting that churches could offer free meals on commercially zoned properties without any restrictions.
She declined to say how the city might go about enforcing the new limits on St. Timothy's, citing Lindley's promise to sue the city over the new permitting scheme.
Lindley tells Reason that he's happy to comply with state food safety regulations, but the limitations the city's zoning regulations are putting on St. Timothy's charitable work is unacceptable.
"It's pretty explicit what Jesus calls us to do. And so, we live into that and the city says 'you're doing too much. We can't have all these Samaritans around,'" he says. "To say well you're a church in a residential area so you have to do this, this, and this…We're a church first."