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A church is suing after a town says it can give away free meals only twice per week

Free meals are prepared at St. Timothy's Episcopal Church in Brookings, Ore.
Episcopal Diocese of Oregon and St. Timothy's Episcopal Church
Free meals are prepared at St. Timothy's Episcopal Church in Brookings, Ore.

An Oregon church has sued the town where it's located over a new local ordinance that restricts the number of times the church can dole out free meals each week to those in need.

St. Timothy's Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon say in a federal lawsuit against the city of Brookings that the ordinance limiting them to two free meal giveaways per week violates their constitutional right to free religious expression.

"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 Rev. Bernie Lindley said in a 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," he added.

Brookings Mayor Ron Hedenskog and City Manager Janell Howard did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The pandemic increased the need for services from the church

One of the many consequences of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 was a spike in food insecurity across the United States. The nonprofit organization Feeding America estimated that 45 million people, including 15 million children, were food insecure that year.

The same was true of Brookings, a town of about 6,700 residents in the far southwestern corner of Oregon. St. Timothy's had been working with other churches to ensure locals could get free meals every day of the week, but some churches suspended their meal programs when the pandemic began, according to the lawsuit. St. Timothy's, in turn, began offering meals six days a week, serving up to 70 people each lunchtime.

The church also offered coronavirus testing and COVID-19 vaccination. At one point, the city asked St. Timothy's to allow people who needed to sleep in their cars to use its parking lot, and the church agreed, the filing says.

But the services for homeless people began to rankle residents living near St. Timothy's, who complained of trespassing, littering and noise in their neighborhood, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported. The residents sent the city a petition in April asking for the church's homeless services to end.

In October, the City Council approved an ordinance creating a permit for "benevolent meal service" and restricting it to twice per week. The only nonprofits in Brookings offering free meals to homeless people are churches, according to OPB.

Pushback from St. Timothy's leads to legal action

At the time of the vote, Hedenskog, the mayor, said the City Council was trying to take into account the needs of those who go to St. Timothy's for services as well as the concerns of local residents, the news site Wild Rivers Outpost reported.

"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," he said, according to the news site. "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."

Still, the church said it took legal action against Brookings because it said the ordinance violates congregants' "free expression of their Christian faith, which calls them to serve others in need." The church said it has not applied for a permit as required under the new ordinance.

Bishop Diana Akiyama, of the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon, said she supports the church and its efforts to provide free meals for those who need them.

"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. Providing hospitality to all who enter St. Timothy's in search of help is integral to our beliefs."

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