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DOJ sides with church suing city for restricting homeless charity

The United States Department of Justice found that a city in Oregon has wrongfully restricted a local congregation from being able to feed the local homeless population.

Last year, St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church of Brookings sued city officials for passing an ordinance that limited their ministry work among the local homeless because of resident complaints.

Filed in the United States District Court for the District of Oregon, Medford Division, the statement of interest argued that the city “imposed a substantial burden’ on Plaintiffs’ religious exercise by restricting the Plaintiffs from distributing meals to persons in need at a house of worship.”

Specifically, the DOJ cited the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, a federal law that prohibits the government from unreasonably restricting a religious group’s use of their property.

“Courts have held that protected’religious exercise’ includes not only services, prayers, or worship, but also the provision of housing, shelter, and other social services when motivated by an entity’s sincerely held religious beliefs or mission,” said the statement.

“The City cannot demonstrate that restricting St. Timothy’s meal service furthers the City’s generalized, overly vague interest in promoting ‘public safety and welfare.’”

On Tuesday, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division said that the department “is committed to enforcing federal civil rights laws to ensure that all religious groups can freely exercise their religious beliefs.”

“Many churches and faith-based organizations across the country are on the front lines serving the critical needs of people experiencing hunger and homelessness,” stated Clarke.

“Discriminatory zoning restrictions that burden and limit religious organizations’ use of their land violate federal antidiscrimination laws.”

Last year, the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon and St. Timothy’s Church filed suit against the City of Brookings over the Brookings City Council’s unanimous passing of Ordinance 21-O-795 in 2021.

The ordinance mandates that food providers get a conditional use permit to operate in a residential zone. Even with the permit, which churches can apply for without paying a fee, St. Timothy’s would be limited to serving food only two days a week.

“Plaintiffs now face the decision of whether to exercise their core religious beliefs or face enforcement action by the city. Plaintiffs intend to continue exercising their core religious beliefs and serving meals at St. Timothy’s four days per week,” reads the lawsuit.

“Plaintiffs do not intend to restrict their religious exercise to two days or fewer per week because the community need is greater than serving meals only twice per week.”

Brookings City Manager Janelle Howard told Oregon Public Broadcasting in 2021 that the ordinance came in response to a petition by residents who said the food ministry negatively impacted them.

“They were looking for some relief because it was becoming an impact to their particular neighborhood, whether they mentioned trespassing, littering, or noise,” Howard said at the time. “They were asking for some kind of relief from the city.”

Howard also told OPB that city officials had the authority to institute the restrictive ordinance on St. Timothy’s because it was in a residential zone, noting that if they had been “in commercial zones, there would be no limitations to the frequency, the hours, or the number of days a week.”

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