A church in southwest Oregon is suing the city where it's located over a strange new local ordinance that limits the number of times per week the institution can serve free meals to needy residents.
What are the details?
St. Timothy's Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Brookings, Oregon, last week, arguing the city violated the church's constitutional right to religious expression by barring it from serving the community, NPR reported.
For more than 75 years, the church has been serving its local community, often by providing services to people who are homeless, sick, or otherwise in need, the diocese noted in a press release. Perhaps most notably, the church has become a refuge for the hungry, frequently serving free meals to people in need from the church property.
St. Timothy's and other local churches are the only nonprofits in the city that provide meal services. And when other churches suspended their meal services during the early stages of the pandemic, St. Timothy's decided to up its offerings to six days a week, typically serving up to 70 people each lunchtime.
But the charitable services apparently rankled some members of the community, who sent a petition to the city council complaining of trespassing, littering, and noise in their neighborhood and asking that the city suspend the church's homeless services.
In response, the Brookings City Council approved an ordinance that churches obtain a "benevolent meal service" permit to provide meal services on their property, limiting such services to two times per week.
The city maintained that the ordinance was adopted as a way to satisfy the concerns of local residents while still respecting the needs of the individuals who go to St. Timothy's for meals.
"There is nobody on this council that has made an attack on St. Timothy's whatsoever. It's not because we're all wicked. It's because we're meeting needs [to serve] a dual purpose. There are other ways to explain what's going on without vilifying the City Council," Brookings Mayor Ron Hedenskog said, according to Wild Rivers Outpost.
"I'm upset over this. I've been upset over it for weeks. There has never been a statement from this council or staff about shutting down benevolent kitchens. We're looking to strike an equilibrium," he added.
But the church and its diocese have refused to comply, arguing their congregants' religious liberty rights have been unduly burdened.
"The parishioners of St. Timothy’s are obeying the teachings of Jesus when they provide food and medical care to their community," Bishop Diana Akiyama said in a statement. "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."
"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," the church's reverend, Father Bernie, added. "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."
In the lawsuit, St. Timothy’s and the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon are asking a federal court to declare the ordinance invalid on constitutional grounds.
"The St. Timothy’s meal program is not only a vital service for many, but also a protected expression of faith," Samantha Sondag, an attorney at Stoel Rives, one of the firms representing the plaintiffs, said.
"The City of Brookings is attempting without justification to restrict Father Bernie and the congregants of St. Timothy’s right to worship as their conscience dictates," Walter Fonseca, special projects counsel with the Oregon Justice Resource Center, added.
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