Episcopalian church sues Oregon city limiting its meals to homeless

Episcopalian church sues Oregon city limiting its meals to homeless.

Soup kitchen. File photo/CNA.

Portland, Ore., Feb 4, 2022 / 15:19 pm (CNA).

The Episcopal Diocese of Oregon and St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church are suing the city of Brookings, Oregon, after the city passed an ordinance in October limiting the number of times they could distribute free food to the homeless.

The lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court in Medford, Ore. on Jan. 28, claims that the city is infringing upon their right to freedom of religious expression. The lawsuit requests that the court void Brookings’ ordinance. 

In October, the city council unanimously approved an ordinance restricting churches in residential areas, like St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, from serving the homeless more than twice a week. The ordinance went into effect on Jan. 26. 

Previously, St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church would serve meals free of charge to the homeless as many as six days a week. Churches were informed that they would have to get permits in order to feed the homeless, and were limited to providing two free meals per week. St. Timothy’s Episcopal has so far refused to file for these permits. 

“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,” said a statement from Bernie Lindley, the vicar at St. Timothy’s Episcopal, after the suit was filed.  

The Episcopal Diocese of Oregon said in a statement released Feb. 3 that they are standing by St. Timothy’s Episcopal in their lawsuit against the Brookings, which is about 340 miles south of Portland. 

“It is a central tenet of our faith to offer generous hospitality by feeding, clothing, and providing hygienic and medical services to members of the community who are in need,” the diocese said in a statement. “We are committed to continuing our ministries despite the City’s various attempts to restrict or end our right to freely express our faith.”

During the pandemic, other area churches stopped their food distribution programs, while St. Timothy’s increased theirs. At the start of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, St. Timothy’s Episcopal received a permit to provide shelter to the homeless in their church parking lot. 

 “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,” said Lindley. As many as 80 people attend the parish’s weekly pizza night on Fridays. 

The ordinance was proposed after families living near the church complained of noise, violence, and drug use among the homeless population living on the church’s grounds. A search of Google Maps’ street view shows many houses directly opposite the parish’s small parking lot. 

Lindley told the New York Times that police had intervened on “a few occasions” in the makeshift homeless shelter in the church’s parking lot, and that two women were sent to a state mental hospital following manic episodes. 

By April 2021, a petition was circulating among the people of Brookings, who were complaining that the homeless population was “becoming an impact to their particular neighborhood.” 

“They were asking for some kind of relief from the city,” Brookings City Manager Janelle Howard told local media in October, after the ordinance was passed.

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