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Federal DOJ weighs in on Brookings lawsuit about church feeding homeless people

Father Bernie Lindley in St. Timothy's Episcopal Church in 2021.
Erik Neumann
Father Bernie Lindley in St. Timothy's Episcopal Church in 2021.

In a statement of interest filed on Tuesday, the Department of Justice said the city's request to decide the case should be denied.

St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in the South Coast community of Brookings, OR, has been serving food to those in need for decades, sometimes as often as six days a week.

The conflict started in 2021, when city officials received a complaint from neighbors called the Petition to Remove Homeless from St. Timothy Church. It asked the city to "prevent the congregation of vagrants or undesirables."

The city says it then determined that the church’s kitchen was classified as a restaurant, which is not allowed in residential areas.

"The St. Timothy’s soup kitchen and others like it were already violating long-standing city land use ordinances," according to the city's motion for summary judgement, filed in October.

As a result, the Brookings City Council created an ordinance in October 2021 that required a permit for such meal services in residential zones. The ordinance also says meals can only be served two days a week.

St. Timothy's sued the city in January 2022.

"The City suddenly claimed that St. Timothy’s long-established use of its property—which is, by the City’s own Land Development Code, a lawful nonconforming use— did not comply with the City’s zoning laws. And when Plaintiffs did not accept the City’s suggestion that they stop engaging in Christian acts of service for the Brookings community, the City decided to rewrite the laws in an effort to force them to do so," the church's complaint reads.

Father Bernie Lindley said the city is prohibiting the church from exercising its religious duty to serve the poor.

"When the city of Brookings said that we were going to be restricted to two days a week, we said, 'We can't do that.' We can’t apply for a permit to only feed people two days a week when they may or may not need to be fed by us much more often than that," he said.

Alli Gannett, director of communications the Episcopal Church in Western Oregon, said this ordinance adds restrictions to the church's work.

"Our ultimate goal is to not have any restrictions on feeding those in need. As Jesus calls us to serve the hungry and to care for those who are sick, any sort of restrictions put on that ministry prohibits us from fulfilling our call as Christians," she said.

Heather Van Meter, one of the attorneys representing the city, said in an emailed statement Wednesday, “The City of Brookings adopted an ordinance to allow benevolent meal services to continue in the City, including those currently served by St. Timothy’s."

The city says St. Timothy's could continue its meal services elsewhere in the city in a commercial zone.

"What this case is really about, is St. Timothy's belief that they are beyond the reach of any regulation that may impact when, where, or how they engage in their activities. Their position that none of their actions in a residential zone can be regulated is legally incorrect," the city wrote in its response to the church's complaint.

In an emailed statement on Wednesday, Rt. Rev. Diana D. Akiyama, bishop in the Episcopal Church in Western Oregon, wrote, "We welcome the DOJ’s interest in our lawsuit and join numerous other religious organizations who are fighting the suppression of religious expression in order to continue serving those in need."

In its Tuesday statement, the DOJ says the city's ordinance does not further the city's interest in promoting public welfare and safety.

"The issues with noise, aesthetics, and crime that prompted the ordinance are byproducts of homelessness and poverty that would persist in Brookings regardless of St. Timothy’s meal service—and indeed may even be made worse if St. Timothy’s were forced to curtail its meal service," the statement of interest reads.

Briefing on this case is expected to finish next month. After that, the court could decide to make a judgment or the case could continue.

Since the lawsuit has been filed, St. Timothy's has continued to provide meal services four days a week.

Correction: a previous version of this story misspelled the last name of Rt. Rev. Diana D. Akiyama.

Jane Vaughan is a regional reporter for Jefferson Public Radio. Jane began her journalism career as a reporter for a community newspaper in Portland, Maine. She's been a producer at New Hampshire Public Radio and worked on WNYC's On The Media.