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Oregon church sues after city says it can only give out free meals twice a week to the homeless

A person cycles past tents set up along a pathway in Portland, Ore., in September 2017. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

An Oregon church has sued a city government after it issued an ordinance that limits the church to serve free meals only twice a week to the homeless.

St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Brookings, Ore., and the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon filed a federal lawsuit last week asking a court in Oregon to declare the city council’s new limitations invalid, claiming they infringe the church’s constitutional right to free religious expression.

The restrictions come after dozens of residents complained last year that “vagrants” living in or congregating around the church had caused problems in the community including “criminal trespassing, theft, harassment, drug possession, littering, disorderly conduct, physical altercation,” among others, according to a petition signed last spring.

The church alleges the residents pressured the city government “to move, end or significantly limit the help it provides to the community,” the church said in a news release last week, adding such limits “conflicts with the deeply held religious beliefs of St. Timothy’s congregants.”

In October, the city council unanimously voted to limit churches and charitable organizations by requiring them to apply for a permit to provide “benevolent meal service” no more than two times a week and with limited hours.

St. Timothy’s — which started serving meals six days a week during the pandemic — has refused to apply for the permit, claiming the restrictions “target and interfere with the congregation’s free expression of their Christian faith which calls them to serve others in need.”

The lawsuit is the latest quandary facing the small city located along the Pacific coast near the border with California that is grappling with a worsening issue of dealing with homeless people’s needs while addressing growing concerns from residents about safety and cleanliness.

The dilemma has also played out in different states across the country, and particularly in cities along the West Coast, including Portland, where pandemic economic fallout has caused thousands to become homeless, food insecure and financially unstable. Many now rely on parishes and nonprofit organizations for food, shelter and other basic services.

‘The mansion on Emerson Street’

The city council members and the office of Mayor Ron Hedenskog did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday from The Washington Post.

According to the Wild Rivers Outpost, Hedenskog argued the council’s ordinance was a way to meet both needs of the city’s homeless population, as well as the needs of the residents living near the ministry kitchens.

“We have a neighborhood complaining and we have a dual purpose here. This is to strike a balance,” he said.

St. Timothy’s has served the Brookings community of 6,431 people for decades, providing health clinics, a food bank and social services for those most in need, including showers, Internet access and meals, according to its website.

When nearly every other church in the area suspended their free-meal services during the pandemic, St. Timothy’s expanded its program and provided coronavirus testing and hosted vaccine clinics, according to the statement.

Following a request from the city government, it offered its parking lots to residents who needed a safe place to sleep in their vehicles, the statement added.

“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 St. Timothy’s vicar, the Rev. Bernie Lindley, called “Father Bernie” by the churchgoers in the statement.

“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.”

Lindley did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

According to local media reports, Lindley has pointed at rising housing prices, along with the pandemic’s impact on financial and mental health, as worsening an already pressing issue of people who are without a place to live.

“Even before the pandemic, we had a big uptick in people that were displaced,” Lindley told the Episcopal News Service. “Housing is really impossible in our area. If a place comes up for rent, it gets rented within, like, 20 minutes of being advertised. It’s just ridiculous.”

The Episcopal Diocese of Oregon joined St. Timothy’s in the lawsuit and said in a joint statement that the restrictions imposed by the city interfere with the congregation’s free expression of its faith.

St. Timothy’s is “obeying the teachings of Jesus when they provide food and medical care to their community,” said Oregon Diocese Bishop Diana Akiyama.

Brookings, like other West Coast towns and cities, have said they are overwhelmed by an unprecedented rise in homeless people, often living in squalid encampments. According to government data, the number of Americans who are experiencing homelessness has increased in each of the past five years, with many now living not in shelters but in tents or sleeping bags outside.

As of January 2020, Oregon had an estimated 14,655 people experiencing homelessness, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The neighboring state of California, reported more than 161,000 last year.

The church is now asking a federal court in Oregon to declare the ordinance invalid and said they hope the court will bar any future attempt to enforce it.

In the statement, Samantha Sondag, an attorney representing St. Timothy’s and the Diocese, said that the church meal program is a “protected expression of faith.”

“The St. Timothy’s meal program is not only a vital service for many, but also a protected expression of faith,” Sondag said. “Father Bernie and the Church have the right to continue practicing their beliefs by assisting those in need, as they have for decades.”

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