Federal judge rules in favor of Oregon church that was restricted from providing meals to the homeless

A federal judge has blocked an Oregon city from limiting the number of days local churches may feed the homeless.

The ruling comes in response to a lawsuit filed against the city of Brookings by the Oregon Justice Resource Center on behalf of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in 2022.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark D. Clarke ruled Wednesday that a 2021 ordinance passed by Brookings limiting churches to two “benevolent meal services” per week violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, according to Portland station KOIN.

He explained that the ordinance forced the church to choose between practicing its faith or avoiding the city’s exorbitant fines.

“Here, it is undisputed that St. Timothy’s either provides or hosts a benevolent meal service three to four times per week and that, in the past, St. Timothy’s has provided a benevolent meal service up to six times per week. The clergy and the members of St. Timothy’s have provided food to the hungry for over a decade, and they believe it is a central tenet of their faith to do so,” he wrote.

“By limiting the number of days per week that St. Timothy’s can provide benevolent meal service, the ordinance forces Plaintiffs to choose between acting in accordance with their faith or facing a fine of $720 per day. The ordinance thus puts ‘substantial pressure’ on ‘plaintiffs ‘to modify their behavior and to violate their beliefs,'” he added.

According to The Oregonian, Clarke also questioned why none of the other businesses/operations in town, including golf courses and hospitals, were also forced to abide by the ordinance.

“It is unclear why a church serving meals to the public for free would be considered a ‘restaurant’ under the City zoning laws, but a golf course or bed and breakfast serving paid meals would not,” he said.

“This blatant inconsistency undermines the idea that without the Ordinance and a conditional use permit, St. Timothy’s would be disallowed from serving meals at all. If the other non-single-family residential uses can serve meals unrestricted, why not a church?”

Clarke concluded his ruling by slamming the city for enacting the ordinance and praising the church for being there to help the community.

“Consistent with their faith, and with the city’s full awareness, St. Timothy’s has cared for vulnerable people in the community for decades, including during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic when there were few, if any, other accessible resources in the area,” he wrote.

“The clergy and the congregation at St. Timothy’s have shown that they have been prepared to work with the city to care for those in need, and at the same time preserve the livability of the area for their neighbors by cooperating with law enforcement when necessary. The homeless are not ‘vagrants,’ but are citizens in need. This is a time for collaboration, not ill-conceived ordinances that restrict care and resources for vulnerable people in our communities,” he added.

Rev. Bernie Lindley, the vicar of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, was pleased by the ruling.

“Ever since I saw that, I’ve been smiling,” he told The Oregonian. “I’m so glad to know that the judge very much understood our position.”

But why did the city ever pass such a controversial ordinance to begin with? Reportedly because of pandemic-era crime.

The Oregonian notes that in April of 2021, Brookings received a local resident’s petition asking city officials to “reconsider allowing vagrants to continue to live and congregate” at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church because of all the burgeoning crime, including vandalism.

“Brandon Usry, who lives across the street from the front of the church, [said] that he started the petition because of the increase in crime in the neighborhood,” The Oregonian notes. “He said he put up surveillance cameras and frequently call[ed] police because of the drug use, public nudity and fights that occur outside the church.”

Former Brookings Mayor Ron Hedenskog, meanwhile, reportedly testified in a court deposition that a limit on the church’s meal service could potentially help alleviate these troubles.

Members of the public responded to Clarke’s decision by praising it but also wondering what the heck the city had been thinking in trying to force it to only serve a certain number of meals.


Vivek Saxena


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