Crackdown on Church Soup Kitchens Violates the First Amendment

Brookings has been sued by an Oregon church over restrictions it imposed on its ability to provide free meals for the homeless. St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church has filed a federal suit Friday alleging that Brookings’ rules on “benevolent food service” are unconstitutionally restricted its religious mission of feeding the hungry.

“What churches are doing is what we’re doing.” The church feeds people, Rev. Bernie Lindley from St. Timothy’s shared this story ReasonThe Brookings ordinance went into effect last year. To tell a church they can’t live in the Gospel is to violate our First Amendment right of free religion practice.

Since the 1980s St. Timothy’s and other Brookings churches have operated a soup kitchen several times a week. The pandemic caused many churches to shut down meal services. So St. Timothy’s increased its efforts to provide meals six days a weeks.

Some neighbors weren’t happy to see more people attending the church on a more frequent basis. They complained in an April 2021 petition to the city government that St. Timothy’s soup kitchen—and its participation in the city’s safe parking program, whereby it lets people live in their cars on the church parking lot—was bringing crime and vagrancy to the area.

A city ordinance was passed by the council in October saying that churches and other non-profit organizations in residentially zoned neighborhoods could provide free meals only on two days per week. To do this, they required special conditional uses permits.

This was actually an actual liberalization of Brookings’ rules for zoning. Soup kitchens in residential areas were prohibited because they are subject to the same regulations as restaurants and soup kitchens. Brookings has all its churches in residentially zoned neighborhoods.

Janelle Howard, City Manager says that the ordinance was a compromise. It legalizes technically banned soup kitchens and resolves residents’ complaints over the nuisances caused by them.

However, in practice the church’s charitable activities had not been regulated. It was actually intended to open the door for more regulation. [OK?]

St. Timothy’s, Lindley, and St. Timothy’s were part of the first talks with the City about its soup kitchen ordinance. However they quit after Brookings made clear their intention to limit how many meals the Church could serve.

This ordinance, which became effective last week could mean that St. Timothy’s can be subject to penalties and fines. In an effort to prevent this, St. Timothy’s and the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon sued the U.S. District Court for District of Oregon.

Brookings’ regulations for soup kitchens are in violation of the U.S. constitutions. Also, the complaint claims that the regulation’s vague description of “benevolent food service” as well as unclear sanctions are in violation the due process rights under the U.S. Constitution.

It also argues Brookings violates a federal law that prohibits state and local governments, including Brookings from adopting regulations governing land use that place a substantial burden on religious exercise.

Lindley released a statement saying that they have been providing services to the community for many decades, picking up the pieces where there is need and no one is taking over. We aren’t going to stop now, and we will stand firm to our convictions. Brookings residents who are in dire need of our support will not be forgotten, even if we face threats.”