There’s a familiar but sardonic saying that goes, “No good deed goes unpunished.” For one church in Brookings, Oregon, attempting to fulfill the Bible’s imperative to “feed the hungry,” the saying is, unfortunately, turning out to be true. When ordered to stop serving meals to the hungry at their church location more than twice a week, the church had no choice but to take the matter to court.

St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church and its vicar, Rev. James Bernard Lindley, have for years served meals to the city’s elderly poor, along with the homeless in the Brookings area. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the church teamed up with other area churches to do so, in order to share the burden so that no individual church had to serve meals more than a couple times per week.

When the pandemic took off in 2020, every local church but St. Timothy’s stopped serving meals to the poor. So, St. Timothy’s increased its food service to compensate. At one point it was serving meals six days a week, although currently it is offering lunch only four times a week, since other churches have since resumed their own meal programs.

Rev. Lindley told Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB), “This is the way we express our religion, by feeding people.”

The city welcomed the church’s ministry, even promoting it. And it even asked for additional help from the church. At one point in 2020 the city approached St. Timothy’s and other local churches and asked if they would allow up to three vehicles to be parked in their church parking lot for people living out of their cars. St. Timothy’s signed up without hesitation.

Some of the people living in their vehicles, however, had physical and emotional problems that sometimes resulted in the police being called to the area. Additionally, a homeless encampment started up in the public park across the street from St. Timothy’s.

A handful of St. Timothy’s neighbors delivered a petition to the city in April 2021 complaining about “the congregation of vagrants or undesirables” at St. Timothy’s. One thing led to another, and the city ultimately passed a new ordinance requiring churches in residential zones serving “benevolent meal services” – including St. Timothy’s – to obtain a city permit.

As a condition for obtaining a permit, however, the requesting church had to agree to limit its benevolent meals to twice a week. The ordinance does not apply to churches in areas zoned as “commercial.”

This St. Timothy’s was unwilling to do as a matter of principle, based on its biblical understanding of its mission to serve the poor. Since it could not and would not agree to restrict the number of meals it served, the city was ready to shut down the church’s meal program completely for not obtaining a permit. The church then filed a lawsuit against the city in federal court to protect its right to continue its ministry of feeding the poor.

The irony here is that the city was totally on board with the work St. Timothy’s was doing in the community – until a few naysayers complained.

In addition to claims that the city has violated the church’s rights of free speech, free exercise of religion and rights of association, the church is also asserting its rights under a federal law that protects against zoning laws that substantially burden the freedom of religion.

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) was passed by Congress and signed into law on September 22, 2000. It states:

“No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution, unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden on that person, assembly, or institution—

(A)is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and

(B)is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”

RLUIPA, even though a federal law, reaches the actions of local city governments such as Brookings.

Rev. Lindley says the city has crossed a line and is interfering in the mission of Christ’s church.

“What we’re doing is what churches do. Churches feed people,” he told Reason. “To tell a church that they have to be limited in how they live into the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a violation of our First Amendment right to freely practice our religion.”

The case is St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church v. City of Brookings.

Photo from Shutterstock.