Portland church group sues City of Brookings for restricting meal services for homeless residents – Blogtown

A parishioner at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Brookings prepares packed lunches for homeless residents. St. TImonthy’s

Nearly two years after advocating for the city of Portland to drop plans to limit the number of free meals volunteers could serve the hungry in public parks, a Portland civil rights organization is backing a similar fight in the southwest corner of the state.

On January 28, the Oregon Justice Resource Center (OJRC) filed a lawsuit in federal court against the city of Brookings on behalf of the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon – a Portland-based coalition – after Brookings officials passed an ordinance limiting the number of days local churches can feed the hungry.

In June 2021, more than a dozen residents living near St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Brookings presented the city with a petition to “evict homeless people” who attended the church for free food, showers, medical care and internet access. The petition cited a number of concerns about the approximately 70 homeless people gathered around the church, including allegations of criminal trespassing, theft, harassment, possession of drugs, littering, disorderly conduct, physical altercation and child abuse.

For more than 12 years, St. Timothy’s has served free meals to the public through its Brookings-Harbor Community Kitchen Ministry, a small union of local churches that serves cooked meals seven days a week. When nearly all ministry churches suspended meal services in 2020 due to COVID-19, St. Timothy’s volunteered to take over and became the premier free meal location in the city under 7 000 inhabitants.

In response to community dissatisfaction with the number of homeless people congregating around St. Timothy’s, the city notified local churches that they were operating as restaurants, per Oregon Health Authority rules. The city then prompted the Oregon Health Authority to require churches to file restaurant permits and pass appropriate health and safety inspections. After the churches were certified as restaurants, the City informed the ministry that Brookings municipal code does not allow restaurants in residential areas, where the majority of the Kitchen Ministry churches are located.

In October, Brookings City Council passed a policy allowing churches to continue meal services on the grounds that they are applying for conditional permits. Brookings permits come with conditions that, among other things, limit applicants to holding two meal services per week.

Reverend Diana Akiyama, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon, told the Mercury that this is the first time a city has attempted to place limits on meal services for its congregations.

“We affirm that the city’s actions are not just wrong, they are mean and lack compassion,” Akiyama said.

The issue is all too familiar to the OJRC, which sued the city of Portland in 2019 on behalf of Free Hot Soup, a group of local community members who donate free food to the public at Director Park in downtown Portland. The lawsuit challenged a new Portland Parks and Recreation policy that limited organizations to one meal service per week at Portland parks and would have required the grassroots group to purchase an expensive insurance policy. However, the lawsuit was dismissed months later, after the Department of Parks and Recreation agreed to dismiss the policy.

“The threat of this policy left them with no choice but to close the meal service, but that never happened,” said Alice Lundell, spokeswoman for the OJRC.

Now that the fight has resumed at Brookings, the OJRC is seeking a jury trial in hopes of proving in federal court that these government-imposed restrictions on feeding the hungry violate constitutional rights to religious freedom at the state and state levels. federal.

“If the court finds this order illegal, it could prevent other cities from attempting similar bans,” said OJRC associate director Franz Bruggemeier. “The power and enforceability of the court’s decision would depend on the statute or constitutional right upon which the court relies.”

If no settlement is reached, the case will be heard in United States District Court in Medford. Although much of the preparatory work is still underway, OJRC attorney Walter Fonseca said the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon has a very good case.

“Those [religious issues] are dealt with on a case-by-case basis and based on the facts,” Fonseca said. “St. Timothys has been feeding the hungry for years based on their religious worship firmly rooted in their beliefs. The city can’t do it. This one is clear.