John Ross Ferrara / Monday, Jan. 31, 2022 @ 2:45 p.m. / Community, Local Government, Oregon
St. Timothy's Episcopal Church Files Federal Suit Against the City of Brookings in Response to Ordinance Limiting Meal Services for the Hungry
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St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church intentionally broke the law on Friday by serving hot pizzas to the hungry. The church then promptly filed a lawsuit in federal court.
The meal was the church’s first violation of the City of Brookings’ new ordinance, which requires all charitable organizations to apply for “benevolent meal service” permits. These permits are stippled with conditions that, among other things, limit applicants to holding two meals services per week.
These restrictions are part of the City’s ongoing plan to disperse the roughly 70 homeless people that gather around St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church at 401 Fir Street four times a week for free food, showers and internet access. St. Timothy’s Reverend Bernie Lindley told the Outpost that the church filed suit as soon as it violated the ordinance by ignoring the city’s permit application deadline.
“We’re not seeking monetary damages,” Lindley said. “We just want to be able to live out the teaching of our faith without having some sort of permit.”
The lawsuit, which the church intends to serve to the City today, claims that the city’s ordinance violates a number of the church’s constitutional rights at the state and federal levels, including the First Amendment, which protects certain religious freedoms.
“[St. Timothy’s] repeatedly expressed to the City their opposition to the Ordinance, explaining that adoption would impinge on plaintiffs’ rights to practice central tenets of their faith, harming plaintiffs and causing members of the Brookings community to go hungry,” the lawsuit states. “Since the adoption of the Ordinance, plaintiffs have continued to serve free lunchtime meals four days per week. Plaintiffs now face the decision of whether to exercise their core religious beliefs or face enforcement action by the City.”
For years, St. Timothy’s has served free meals to the hungry as part of its Brookings-Harbor Community Kitchen Ministry — a small coalition of local churches that provide cooked meals to the needy seven days a week. However, during the pandemic, St. Timothy’s became the primary provider of free meals in the community after other churches discontinued their meals services due to COVID-19 concerns.
According to local residents, the increased number of meal services caused a spike in homeless people residing around the church and nearby Azalea Park. This prompted residents living around St. Timothy’s to present a document titled “Petition to Remove the Homeless From St. Timothy Church” at a Brookings City Council workshop in June. The petition cited a number of concerns presented by the homeless crowd, including criminal trespassing, theft, harassment, drug possession, littering, disorderly conduct, physical altercations and child abuse.
Following the workshop, the City contacted the local churches involved with the Kitchen Ministry and informed them that these meal services classify them as restaurants under Oregon Health Authority rules. The City then prompted the Oregon Health Authority to bring these churches into compliance by requiring them to obtain restaurant permits.
Once the churches, like St. Timothy’s, were approved for these restaurant permits, the City informed the ministry that Brookings municipal code does not allow for restaurants in residential zones — where a majority of Brookings churches are located. The city then offered these churches the option to continue their meals services on the grounds that they apply for conditional use permits and adhere to their restrictions.
Oregon Justice Resource Center Special Projects Council Walter Fonseca told the Outpost that the OJR and the Portland-based firm Stoel Rives LLP are representing St. Timothy’s and the greater Episcopal Diocese of Oregon in this case pro bono.
“We want St. Timothy’s to continue to be able to worship and practice religion as they see fit in the City of Brookings,” Fonseca said.
Bishop Diana Akiyama of the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon, based in Portland, stated in a press release last week that the church is refusing to comply with the City’s regulations on the grounds that they interfere with the congregation’s expression of its Christian faith.
“The parishioners of St. Timothy’s are obeying the teachings of Jesus when they provide food and medical care to their community,” Akiyama said. “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.”
Brookings City Manager Janell Howard told the Outpost that the City has not formally been served at this time. However, the City is aware of the pending litigation.
“The City has not formally received a filing of the lawsuit,” Howard said. “I have only been told a copy was seen on Facebook. However, either way, the City does not comment on pending or active lawsuits.”
The plaintiffs have opted to seek a jury trial, which will be held in the United States District Court in Medford if no settlement is reached.
While there is a lot of legal gray area associated with laws and religious freedoms, Fonseca said that this should be a clear-cut case.
“These [issues] are dealt with on a case-by-case basis and based on facts,” Fonseca said. “St. Timothys has been feeding the hungry for years based on their religious worship that’s firmly founded in their beliefs. The City cannot do this. This one is clear.”