Church Told to Limit Free Meals Wins Lawsuit

Federal judge said feeding the hungry is a 'religious exercise'
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 3, 2022 8:11 AM CST
Updated Mar 30, 2024 6:11 PM CDT
Church Sues After City Restricts Free Meal Service
The ordinance limited the number of days "benevolent meal service" could be provided.   (Getty Images/kuarmungadd)
UPDATE Mar 30, 2024 6:11 PM CDT

A church in Brookings, Oregon has won a federal lawsuit it filed in 2022 over a city ordinance that said it could only give homeless people free meals two days per week. Judge Mark Clarke described the soup kitchen at St. Timothy's Episcopal Church as a "religious exercise." He said feeding the hungry is one of the church's "core beliefs" and the city didn't provide any "compelling" reason for it to be limited, the Oregonian reports. The Rev. Bernie Lindley said the ruling was everything he had hoped for and he cried with joy after it was issued Wednesday, reports Oregon Public Broadcasting. In his ruling, Clarke said Brookings was "very fortunate" to have Lindley "and the entire congregation of St. Timothy's as compassionate, caring, and committed members of the community."

Feb 3, 2022 8:11 AM CST

A church in southern Oregon says it is following the teachings of Jesus Christ when it provides free meals to homeless people—and it is unconstitutional for the city of Brookings to try to limit the service. St. Timothy's Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon have filed a federal lawsuit challenging a city ordinance that requires organizations to get permits for "benevolent meal service" and restricting it to two meals per week, NPR reports. The city council introduced the ordinance in October after residents sent the city a petition, complaining about trespassing, littering, noise, and safety issues caused by people visiting the church for free meals. The lawsuit says the church stepped up its meal services during the pandemic because other services had shut down and it didn't want people to go hungry.

The petition, which described homeless people as "vagrants" and "undesirables," was signed by around 30 people, reports Oregon Public Broadcasting. The town has around 6,500 residents. The church says it has not applied for a permit and it considers providing the meals a "free expression of their Christian faith, which calls them to serve others in need." KTVL reports that when the ordinance was introduced, the church's pastor, Bernie Lindley, said he was not willing to restrict services and he felt applying for a permit would open the door for the city to bring in further restrictions. The ordinance went into effect last week.

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"We won't abandon the people of Brookings who need our help, even when we're being threatened," Lindley says. The church has also supplied homeless people with health services including COVID vaccinations. Bishop Diana Akiyama says the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon supports the church's efforts. "The parishioners of St. Timothy's are obeying the teachings of Jesus when they provide food and medical care to their community," she said in a statement. "As Christians, we are called by faith to feed the hungry and welcome the stranger." City officials haven't responded to the lawsuit yet. (More Oregon stories.)

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