All sorts of human activity are affected by zoning restrictions, including home studios and goat yoga businesses. These restrictions are also interfering in the Lord’s work.
Brookings, Oregon has passed a new ordinance which limits the number of meals that churches can serve in residential zones. It also requires them to obtain special permits from cities to allow their soup kitchens to be operated. OPB.
According to the city’s statement, this new ordinance was developed in response to neighborhood concerns about vagrancy and crimes that homeless services brought to the area.
Bernie Lindley, St. Timothy’s reverend, claims the new permitting system violates his and his parishioners’ religious duty of feeding the hungry. The city will also sue him if it tries to fin him for having served too many meals.
“What churches are doing is what we’re doing.” He says that churches feed people. Why?. To tell a church they can’t live in the Gospel of Jesus Christ is to violate our First Amendment right of free religion practice.
Through their Community Kitchen Project, St. Timothy’s Church and Brookings’ other charities have provided free meals for the poor in Brookings over many years. Every participating organisation took one to two days per week to provide food for the hungry from their property.
Some participating churches had to stop providing their charity meal service due to the pandemic. St. Timothy’s stepped in and began offering meals six days a weeks.
The increase in meal service was also accompanied by changes in the types of people the church served. During the pandemic, federal food assistance was expanded. Many of those who were poor but not housed stopped showing up. However, the number of homeless persons being served by the church has increased.
St. Timothy’s also participated as the sole church to the city’s pandemic-era emergency vehicle camping program. It allowed consenting religious institutions, to permit people to park in churches’ parking lots.
The vehicle camping program was more than St. Timothy’s congregation and could manage. Many people that ended up camping at the church needed to have psychological and physical care. Some of the mental health issues of some of those who slept at the church were exacerbated by the pandemic, which also caused restrictions to the availability and accessibility of mental healthcare services.
Lindley, who was helping people in his church, said that although they could hold their heads up when all is well, once stress strikes, it becomes difficult for them to self-regulate. He says that several people had psychotic episodes. There were fights. There were multiple calls to the police.
This was unacceptable to the neighbor.
A petition was signed by 30 citizens demanding the city reconsider allowing vagabonds to congregate and live at St. Timothy’s Church in April 2021. The petition listed many negative effects that the vagrants had on the area, such as fights and theft.
Janelle Howard is Brookings’ City Manager. She said the petition led to the council ordering city staff to find ways to reduce the impact of St. Timothy’s homeless people on the area.
This led her to discover that the soup kitchens in all of the cities were technically illegal.
Oregon Health Authority is the top state food safety regulator. It regulates “benevolent” restaurants the same way as commercial restaurants. Howard states that Brookings churches engaged in a type of commercial activity which is not permitted within the residential neighborhood. Also AllMost of the churches in the city are found within neighborhoods that have been designated as residential.
In response, the city held a number of workshops and public meetings—which Howard says included many of the churches in town—to try and come up with a program that would permit residentially zoned houses of worship to continue offering charitable meal service while lessening the impacts on nearby homeowners.
Lindley said he took part in the first rounds of the talks. However, it was clear that the city planned to restrict the amount of meals his church can serve. A condition Lindley found unacceptable.
The ordinance passed by the city council requires that churches obtain a conditional permit to provide food service for up to two hours per day and up to three hours each week. There are also requirements for places that serve meals to have certain parking spaces. Howard states that this should not be an issue for any church, as the existing parking requirements for religious institutions is higher than those for new soup kitchen permits.
This was really a relaxation of Brookings laws regarding technically illegal soup kitchens. It means these kitchens, which were previously unregulated, will have to obtain explicit permission to serve meals again.
Most churches don’t mind the changes, considering they had only been serving one or two meals each week until the pandemic.
Lindley views the new city limit of two days as an imposition. First, St. Timothy’s currently offers meals on four days per week. The church does not plan to reduce that number. Lindley also expressed concern that if another church had to stop its meal service—because it had a COVID outbreak, say—the city’s new limits wouldn’t allow other churches to quickly fill that gap.
He claims that the new ordinance addresses a problem already solved.
St. Timothy’s banned vehicle camping from its land in June. This helped to alleviate many complaints by neighbors. Lindley states that there will be no reduction in the negative effects on nearby residents as many of the churches running soup kitchens can also be found within a few blocks.
Howard, the manager of Brookings City, said that Brookings was not looking to clamp down on soup-kitchens. Rather, Brookings wants to ensure that they operate in suitable areas. Howard also pointed out that churches could serve free meals on commercially zoned property without restriction.
However, she declined to give details about how St. Timothy’s might enforce the new restrictions. Lindley’s promises to sue for the change in permitting policy led her to not do so.
Lindley tells ReasonAlthough he will comply with the state’s food safety regulations, he does not agree that the city’s zoning regulations have any impact on St. Timothy’s charity work.
“It is quite explicit what Jesus asks us to do. So, we follow Jesus’ call and live up to it. The city tells us that too many things are too. He says, “We can’t have all of these Samaritans about.” “To say well you’re a church in a residential area so you have to do this, this, and this…We’re a church first.”