Federal judge rules in favor of Western Oregon church’s unrestricted right to serve free meals

By Melodie Woerman
Posted Apr 5, 2024

The Rev. Bernie Lindley sorts bread for the food ministry at St. Timothy’s, Brookings, Oregon. That ministry can continue unrestricted after a court ruling found in favor of the church and the Episcopal Church in Western Oregon and against actions by the city to limit it. Photo: Courtesy Bernie Lindley

[Episcopal News Service] A U.S. District Court judge issued a summary judgment in favor of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Brookings, Oregon, and the Episcopal Church in Western Oregon and against the city, which had adopted an ordinance to restrict the number of days to two that the church could serve free meals to its community.

The church and its staff “were ecstatic,” when they received the news, the Rev. Bernie Lindley, St. Timothy’s vicar, told Episcopal News Service.

Brookings is located along the Pacific coast about 10 miles north of the California border. The church serves meals four days a week, and in March that totaled 1,170 meals, for an average of 73 meals per day.

The lawsuit filed in 2022 alleged that when the city adopted the 2021 ordinance, it violated the church’s rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, as well as the right to free expression of religion guaranteed under the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Oral arguments were heard on the case on Feb. 15.

On March 27, U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Mark Clarke issued a summary judgment in favor of the church, Lindley, who was also named as a plaintiff, and the diocese, a ruling that decided the case without a full trial.

Clarke found that the city of Brookings had violated the church’s rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act by adopting an ordinance that allowed “benevolent meal services” to be provided no more than two days a week. Because the ordinance violated a statute, the judge did not have to rule on the constitutional issues raised.

Lindley said the judge’s final words in his ruling “were especially important because they were so favorable.” Clarke wrote in part, “The City of Brookings is very fortunate to have Reverend Lindley and the entire congregation of St. Timothy’s as compassionate, caring, and committed members of the community.” He went on to add, “The homeless are not ‘vagrants,’ but are citizens in need. This is a time for collaboration, not ill-conceived ordinances that restrict care and resources for vulnerable people in our communities.”

Western Oregon Bishop Diana Akiyama, in email comments to ENS, said she was “delighted to have received the federal judge’s decision.” The court, she said, “demonstrated compassion and concern for those in our communities who are hungry and houseless. This is cause for great joy in the church as we continue to care for the ‘least of these’ in our community.”

St. Timothy’s, however, still faces some legal issues. The church and diocese are appealing through state administrative action other restrictions the city of Brookings has tried to place on what it calls the church’s social services, but which Lindley said are “what we call ministries.”

The church provides a variety of resources to people who are often unhoused and have a history of being abused. Lindley said some of them don’t know how to function in many situations because they never were taught how. He noted that, for instance, when someone wants to get a driver’s license, a member of the church’s volunteer team goes with them to help them navigate the process.

St. Timothy’s community response is critical, Lindley said, because there are basically no other services for people in town. While the number of unhoused people has risen in recent years and in 2023 across Oregon was up 8.5 percent from 2022, there is no shelter for them other than one that only operates during three winter months.

In Brookings there is no domestic violence shelter, no public health or mental health services and no transitional housing. The closest behavioral health services are 200 miles away. No one other than St. Timothy’s provides free meals.

Through the church’s Brookings CORE Response team, St. Timothy’s provides showers, a clothing closet, a community garden, a variety of vaccinations and tests including for COVID-19, a place where about 100 people get their mail, and space where people can just get a cup of coffee and talk to others.

The church’s legal advocacy includes the services of on-staff attorney, who Lindley said spends a lot of time helping people get minor convictions expunged so they have better access to housing and jobs. Helping people navigate services under disability insurance is another big task.

Team members also make sure that people are simply treated well when they go to the emergency room or seek medical care. “You’ve got to walk with people,” Lindley said.

Because so many of the people St. Timothy’s sees have suffered abuse or neglect, being their champion is crucial, he said. “Whatever their causes, whatever their needs are, we take an honest assessment, and we walk them through the process.”

Lindley grew up in Brookings and has been a member of St. Timothy’s since he was a child. He was ordained in the park next to the church in 2008 and has served as its vicar ever since. In the winter, he continues his family business fishing for Dungeness crab.

When asked why the city seems so reluctant to help those in need, Lindley said, “There is a lot of civic pride when it comes to our natural beauty, and people shouldn’t be suffering in paradise.” Along with denial, some people just blame others for their own misfortune.

But instead of blaming struggling people, Lindley hopes his fellow citizens would see homelessness, abuse and poverty as society’s failings, not those of the people themselves. And if society has failed them, “It’s my responsibility as a member of society to lift you back up again.”

—Melodie Woerman is a freelance reporter based in Kansas.