Jessica Cejnar Andrews / Monday, Oct. 16 @ 4:36 p.m. / Community, Homelessness, Local Government, Oregon
St. Timothy's, Brookings Seek Summary Judgment In Church's 'Community Kitchen' Lawsuit, Hope to Forego a Jury Trial
Both parties in a federal lawsuit over whether St. Timothy Episcopal Church in Brookings can continue to feed the hungry at its Fir Street location have asked a judge to forego a jury trial and make a ruling themself.
St. Timothy’s, its reverend, Bernie Lindley, and the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon as well as the defendant, the City of Brookings, submitted separate motions for a summary judgment to the United States District Court of Oregon in Medford on Oct. 6.
According to Rev. Cora Rose, an attorney and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America deaconess, though oral arguments are expected soon, by petitioning the judge to issue a summary judgment, the plaintiffs and defendant are saying, “Hey, judge, we don’t need a jury.”
“This case is so clean cut or cut and dried (the judge) should be able to make a decision," Rose told the Wild Rivers Outpost on Friday. “The case was filed in January 2022 and discovery has taken the entire year of 2023 so far. I don’t know if oral argument will get pushed into 2024.”
St. Timothy’s lawsuit seeks to keep the City of Brookings from enforcing an ordinance Councilors approved on Oct. 25, 2021, requiring organizations to obtain a conditional use permit to host “benevolent meal services.” The ordinance also restricts those benevolent meal services to three hours a day, twice a week.
In their motion for summary judgment, the church and Diocese argue that Brookings “presented and ostensibly relied on misleading and irrelevant information” when its City Council adopted its “benevolent meal services” ordinance.
The plaintiff's motion says the ordinance violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, the First and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution and sections two, three and eight of Article 1 of the Oregon Constitution.
“[T]here is no genuine dispute that its motivation arose from belief that St. Timothy’s was not acting like a ‘traditional’ church,” the plaintiff’s motion states. “The record shows that the city officials designed the ordinance not only to restrict plaintiffs’ feeding ministry, but to create a path to impose new conditions on activities that the city deemed insufficiently church-like.”
The City of Brookings, in its motion for summary judgment, argues that the church’s lawsuit falls under the category of “no good deed goes unpunished.” The ordinance in question stems from an April 2021 complaint signed by 29 residents living near St. Timothy’s church at 401 Fir Street.
While looking into that complaint, officials determined that under Oregon state law restaurants weren’t allowed in residential zones and that St. Timothy’s soup kitchen and others “were already violating long-standing city land use ordinances.”
By adopting the ordinance, Brookings Mayor Ron Hedenskog — who ran St. Timothy's meal program for about 10 years — and the City Council wanted to ensure the church could continue with its soup kitchen legally, the city’s motion argues.
“The city created a new legal pathway to continue the benevolent meal services already being provided in residential zones,” Brookings’ motion for summary judgment states. “If the city had not done so, all benevolent meal services in residential zones were violating the city’s land-use code. But, often no good deed goes unpunished in city government — hence this lawsuit.”
According to Lindley, St. Timothy’s has a long history of feeding the hungry dating back to at least 1985 when it operated a food bank out of its basement. Brookings adopted its land development code and zoned the area around St. Timothy’s as residential in 1989.
A year after Lindley became the church’s vicar in 2009, St. Timothy’s began offering free lunches twice a week. Other nearby churches began offering meals on the days St. Timothy’s didn’t, creating a rotating program called “The Community Kitchen.” This program became an important resource for low-income and homeless individuals “because the city offers few, if any, services for these residents,” according to the church’s motion.
St. Timothy’s began serving meals three to four times a week in 2015 due to an increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness in Brookings.
At the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, when other churches stopped serving meals, St. Timothy’s increased its lunches to five or six times per week. St. Timothy’s was also the only church to obtain a permit under an April 2020 temporary rule the city enacted that allowed religious institutions to offer overnight camping space to the homeless.
According to the church’s motion for summary judgment, Rule 2020-1 was meant to expire when Gov. Kate Brown’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order terminated and required churches to provide sanitary facilities for campers. But the program became challenging for the church to manage.
“Some of the people who slept on St. Timothy’s property ‘had untreated mental illness’ (and were) in need of services unavailable in Brookings,” the plaintiff’s motion states. “There were behavioral issues and loud noises. Two individuals assaulted each other. In addition, government officials transported at least one person struggling with medical and/or mental health issues to the church where she remained until Father Bernie checked her into a hospital.”
Those issues led to the April 10, 2021, complaint and petition, the plaintiff’s motion states. But, while the petition didn’t mention the church’s Community Kitchen program, a city staff report concluded that the church was “operating a commercial kitchen without a permit.”
The church sought and obtained a commercial kitchen license from the Oregon Health Authority on June 30, 2021.
Attorneys for the City of Brookings argue that neither the Episcopal Church’s tenets of faith, scriptures or sacraments require “benevolent meal services to be served on site at St. Timothy’s or at all.”
According to the city’s motion for summary judgment, Lindley and Episcopal Diocese of Oregon Bishop Diana Akiyama testified that benevolent meal services aren’t required at all. Only four of about 69 churches within the Oregon Diocese has a meal program, according to the city’s motion.
“(There’s) nothing in the church’s faith that prohibits Fr. Lindley from providing benevolent meal services in non-residential areas of the city," including using meals prepared in St. Timothy’s own commercial kitchen, the city’s motion states. “(There’s) nothing in the church’s faith that prohibits Fr. Lindley from choosing other meals such as a food bank or making donations to fulfill the general desire to feed the poor, and in fact most other churches do so, if they do anything at all.”
The city’s motion states that Lindley admitted to searching for another venue for St. Timothy’s meal services in the past but didn’t find anything suitable and hadn’t searched recently. The city’s motion also states that St. Timothy received more than $500,000 in grants from the Oregon Health Authority and other sources and “Fr. Lindley himself owns unused commercial property.”
“Plaintiffs readily admit they could serve free meals to the general public elsewhere, or not at all, entirely consistently with their faith, they simply choose not to do so,” the city’s motion argues. “Plaintiffs admit they could serve two meals at St. Timothy’s and serve meals at other churches in residential zones that have permits, or elsewhere, they choose not to do so.”
St. Timothy’s motion for summary judgment also mentions Brookings’ April 14, 2023, abatement notice. Brookings threatened civil penalties against the church of up to $720 per day if it continued to operate its Community Kitchen program without a conditional use permit.
St. Timothy unsuccessfully attempted to appeal that abatement notice to the Brookings Planning Commission in August.
The Brookings City Council has taken it upon themselves to review the Planning Commission’s decision at the recommendation of the city attorney, City Manager Janell Howard told the Outpost in September. The matter may come before the City Council at its Oct. 23 meeting, according to Howard.