An Oregon church is suing the city of Brookings, Oregon, over limits the local government has imposed on how often it can serve free meals to the poor. A federal lawsuit filed Friday by St. Timothy's Episcopal Church argues that Brookings' regulations on "benevolent meal service" unconstitutionally restrict its religious mission to feed the hungry.
"What we're doing is what churches do. Churches feed people," Rev. Bernie Lindley of St. Timothy's told Reason last year, shortly after the Brookings ordinance passed. "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."
St. Timothy's has run a soup kitchen several days a week since the 1980s, as have other churches in Brookings. When those churches shut down their meal service during the pandemic, St. Timothy's extended its effort to six days a week.
Seeing more people at the church more days a week didn't sit well with some of the neighbors. They complained in an April 2021 petition to the city government that St. Timothy's soup kitchen—and its participation in the city's safe parking program, whereby it lets people live in their cars on the church parking lot—was bringing crime and vagrancy to the area.
In response, the city council passed an ordinance in October that said churches and nonprofits in residentially zoned areas could offer free meal service only two days a week. And to do that, they needed special conditional use permits.
On paper, this was actually a liberalization of Brookings' zoning rules. Because state health authorities regulate soup kitchens like restaurants, and restaurants are a commercial use, soup kitchens were technically prohibited in the city's residential zones. And all of Brookings' churches are located in residentially zoned areas.
City Manager Janelle Howard says the ordinance was intended as a compromise: It legalized technically prohibited soup kitchens while mollifying residents' complaints about the nuisances they caused.
In practice, though, the churches' charitable work had been unregulated before. The ordinance's actual effect was to pave the way for a crackdown.
Lindley and St. Timothy's participated in early talks with the city about its soup kitchen ordinance, but they dropped out after it became clear that Brookings intended to limit the number of days the church could offer meals.
The ordinance became enforceable last week, potentially opening St. Timothy's up to fines and other sanctions. To prevent that, the church and the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon.
The complaint argues that Brookings' soup kitchen regulations violate the U.S. and Oregon constitutions' protections of free expression and the free exercise of religion. It also claims that the regulations' vague description of "benevolent meal service" and unclear potential sanctions violate the U.S. Constitution's due process protections.
Lastly, it argues that Brookings is violating a federal law limiting state and local governments from adopting land use regulations that impose a "substantial burden" on "religious exercise."
"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 declared 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."
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