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An Oregon city just passed a new ordinance that would limit churches’ ability to serve free food to homeless people. But at least one religious leader has told local media he’s not planning to follow it, since helping the unhoused is kind of the Christian thing to do.
“We’re not going to stop feeding,” the Rev. Bernie Lindley, of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Brookings, Oregon, told Oregon Public Broadcasting. “They’re going to have to handcuff me and take me to jail, which they won’t do. So it’s not going to happen: We’re not going to stop feeding. We’re going to do what Christ compels us to do.”
Last week, city council members in the 6,500-resident town unanimously passed a rule allowing churches to offer free food just twice weekly after people living close to the charitable services complained about safety issues, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting. The new regulation comes alongside an intensifying national debate over the visible homeless crisis that’s hit the West Coast particularly hard. Some people have protested greater help for the very poor—particularly if that help was set to be located in a residential neighborhood.
Now, St. Timothy’s is prepared to sue the city over its new restriction, Lindley told KGW, an NBC affiliate in Portland. He said that the church had expanded its feeding services during the pandemic, just as other local churches scaled back due to demand and worries about crowds because of the virus. The church’s soup kitchen, which used to open twice weekly, started opening up four or six days a week, KGW reported.
But not everyone appreciated the program.
“Things have been stolen from my backyard. I've had to put fences up,” one neighbor told KGW. “It's the drug use is what makes it uneasy ... I literally have to go on a walk every night just to make sure no one's gonna be coming onto my property.”
Even so, during the Oct. 25 meeting in which the ordinance was passed, residents appeared divided on limiting the church’s program to feed the poor.
“Parties on both sides agree that this will not help the issue at hand,” Diana Cooper, who co-founded the nonprofit Brookings CORE Response while employed as a community health worker and advocate at St. Timothy’s, said during the live-streamed meeting. “Instead, it will come to a lawsuit, and should the church’s First Amendment rights be upheld—and we believe they will—this will be the second lawsuit won against the city of Brookings for discrimination.”
Lindley and city officials did not immediately respond to VICE News’ request for comment.
But homelessness appears to be a pretty contentious issue in Brookings; the former mayor resigned in April after he upset the city council, reportedly for personally expressing support for a statewide initiative to turn motels and hotels into housing for the homeless, according to the Curry Coastal Pilot.
Brookings has also said it has the authority to limit the churches’ charitable meal services anyway, because they’re treated like restaurants by the Oregon Health Authority, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting. All Brookings churches are situated in residential neighborhoods, and Brookings doesn’t allow restaurants to operate in residential zones.