Jessica Cejnar Andrews / Wednesday, March 27 @ 3:37 p.m. / Community, Homelessness, Oregon

Federal Judge Rules In Favor of St. Timothy's, Says Brookings' Ordinance Imposed a Substantial Burden On Church's Religious Beliefs

In this 2023 file photo, Jay Lindsay receives a meal from Smith River United Methodist Church volunteers at St. Timothy Episcopal Church. | Jessica C. Andrews


St. Timothy's, Brookings Get Their Day In Court; Both Sides, Plus U.S. DOJ, Present Oral Arguments


A federal judge has sided with St. Timothy Episcopal Church, ruling that Brookings’ benevolent meal service ordinance imposes a substantial burden on the exercise of the church’s religious beliefs.

In his ruling on Wednesday, U.S. Magistrate Mark D. Clarke stated that Brookings’ ordinance violated the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA). Clarke granted the plaintiffs’ motion for a summary judgment, while rejecting the city’s motion for a summary judgment and its motion asking him dismiss the case.

“As a preliminary matter, there can be no question that St. Timothy’s feeding ministry is a sincerely held religious belief,” Clarke wrote. “[The city’s ordinance] is a zoning law that on its face and in its application limits the plaintiff’s use of the land at 401 Fir Street, including the church affixed to that property.”

According to ordained deacon Cora Rose, an attorney who operates the church’s legal aid ministry, the judge’s ruling means there will be no trial.

Though he’s happy with the court’s ruling, St. Timothy’s pastor, Reverend Bernie Lindley, said he wasn’t sure how it will affect the city’s April 14, 2023 abatement order against the church’s other social service ministries.

“They have an opportunity now to maybe stop the bleeding,” he told the Wild Rivers Outpost. “There are a lot of smiles and high fives this morning.”

Initially adopted in October 2021, Brookings’ benevolent meal service ordinance required charitable organizations to apply for a conditional use permit whose restrictions limited them to holding two meal services per week.

In November 2023, the Brookings City Council amended the ordinance to allow organizations to offer benevolent meal services up to three days per week.

When she appeared with Lindley and other church representatives before Clarke on Feb. 15, attorney Samantha Sondag of Stoel Rives LLP argued that the initial ordinance, its revision and the April 2023 abatement notice against the church were RLUIPA violations.

They constituted individualized assessments against the church that imposed a substantial burden, Sondag said, with the abatement notice targeting all of the services the church offers.

In his ruling, Clarke agreed. The city’s ordinance forces the church to choose between acting in accordance with their faith or face $720-per-day fines, he wrote.

Brookings' benevolent meal service ordinance as amended in November 2023

Clarke also ruled that since the church was able to show that the city’s ordinance imposed a substantial burden on the exercise of the religious beliefs, it’s up to Brookings to show that they have a compelling government interest to do so.

In her arguments before the judge, Heather Van Meter of Miller Nash LLP, who represented the city, said that concern about St. Timothy’s meal services arose due to public pressure for Brookings to address their public safety, crime and health and wellness concerns.

Van Meter described long lines of people who were not six feet apart and not wearing masks at the church at the height of the Delta surge in 2021.

In his ruling, Clarke acknowledged that protecting the public welfare, maintaining peace and order and preventing crime are compelling government interests. But the city hadn’t stated how the benevolent meal service ordinance’s restrictions to two or three services per week served to prevent crime.

Clarke also stated that the city hasn’t tried to restrict the number of days “any of the other 20 non-single-family residential use types that serve meals to the public” are able to operate. This includes golf courses, daycare facilities or hospitals, the judge wrote. Clarke said it’s unclear why the church would be considered a restaurant — an argument Van Meter made on Feb. 15 — but a golf course or bed and breakfast serving customers wouldn’t.

“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,” Clarke stated. “If the other non-single-family residential uses can serve meals unrestricted, why not a church? Thus, the idea that the ordinance’s limitation is permissive instead of restrictive defies any stretch of the imagination.”

Clarke also cited a church argument stating that the city used St. Timothy’s successful certification through the Oregon Health Authority as a commercial kitchen in 2021 to disallow their community kitchen ministry. According to the church, city officials also referred to those who visited the church’s kitchen ministries as “vagrants” and “blights,” according to Clarke’s ruling.

Clarke acknowledged that there was significant evidence to show that Brookings intended its benevolent meal service ordinance to restrict the church’s service to those who are homeless and others who are needy. But, he said, it wasn’t material to his ruling that Brookings’ ordinance violated RLUIPA.

The judge concluded that Brookings “is very fortunate to have Reverend Lindley and the entire congregation of St. Timothy’s as compassionate, caring and committed members of the community.”

St. Timothy parishioners and officials have shown they were prepared to work with the City of Brookings and to cooperate with law enforcement in order to preserve the livability of the area for its neighbors.

“The homeless are not ‘vagrants,’ but are citizens in need,” Clarke wrote. “This is a time for collaboration, not for ill-conceived ordinances that restrict care and resources for vulnerable people in our communities.”

City representatives could not be reached for comment Wednesday.


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