Tuesday, April 16

Federal judge rules in favor of Oregon church in key First Amendment lawsuit against city

A federal judge has stopped a southern Oregon city’s attempt to shut down a church’s homeless meal service, ultimately ruling against the city government in a key First Amendment case. 

U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Clarke ruled Wednesday that an ordinance passed by the small city of Brookings, on the southern Oregon coast, violated the religious freedom rights of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, which regularly serves meals to the homeless, KGW reported. 

The ordinance, initially approved by the city in 2021, required a permit to serve free food in residential areas and further limited the church’s homeless meal services to two days a week.

The church, which has served the free meals since 2009, then took legal action and sued the city, saying the ordinance violated its right to freely practice religion. On Wednesday, the federal judge agreed with the church.

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In his ruling, Clarke said the city failed to provide a sufficient reason for restricting the number of days the church can serve free meals.

Rev. Bernie Lindley from St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church said his church fed people as an expression of religious belief.

“That’s the way we express our faith: by caring for people who are on the margins, especially people who are hungry,” Lindley said, KGW reported.

“We knew that we weren’t going to be able to comply with their ordinance,” Lindley added. “We knew that it was unconstitutional, so we reluctantly filed a lawsuit.”

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In 2021, with the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent government order forcing the closures of various businesses, the church saw a greater need among its community to provide the meals and decided to extend its program.

To meet the increased demand, they increased meal services to six per week, which drew some complaints from residents. The city responded with the ordinance, which would have reeled in the additional services.

While the judge’s ruling helps keep the meal service in place, the city and the church are fighting other legal battles. 

The city has also asked the church to stop shower and advocacy services, KGW reported. The church has appealed these directives.

Brookings is located in southwest Oregon, less than 6 miles from California’s northern border.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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