A city ordinance in Oregon has restricted a church from conducting its meal program for the homeless, prompting the latter to file a lawsuit for violating their religious freedom.
First Liberty, an organization of American lawyers fighting for religious liberty in the country, raised that the government is prohibiting churches in their ministry work for the needy. They highlighted the experience of St. Timothy's Episcopal Church who filed a lawsuit against the city of Brookings in a federal court. St. Timothy's is asking the court to declare as invalid the city council's ordinance that restricts the church's meal program. The church also seeks a permanent injunction against the ordinance's enforcement.
St. Timothy's serves hot meals four times a week beginning Fridays in conjunction with other churches that have a similar program. The schedule was set in such a way that people would be able to eat a minimum of one hot meal every day of the week through the local churches.
However, residents in the areas near the churches complained to the city council about the meal program. The council then released the ordinance in October that decreased St. Timothy's meal program to twice a week.
Vice reported that the church filed the lawsuit in January since it was being made to decide between the exercise of its core religious beliefs over being punished by the city for not complying with the ordinance.
"The conditional use permit application requires applicants to affirm that they will comply with the terms of the ordinance and not serve meals more than two days per week. Plaintiffs do not intend to restrict their religious exercise to two days or fewer per week because the community need is greater than serving meals only twice per week," the lawsuit read.
The church has launched a fundraiser to help with their cause and to continue with their program.
Besides the city of Brookings, Tallahassee has similarly released an ordinance against the transitional housing program of City Walk Urban Mission. The program was designed in November 2020 to help the homeless during the pandemic through a cold-night shelter. When City Walk Urban Mission was getting a permit for their program's expansion, they were denied. A neighbor complained about living near a homeless shelter.
City Walk sued the City of Tallahassee along with the Tallahassee-Leon County Planning Commission for blocking their First Amendment rights. City Walk Urban Mission Executive Director Renee Miller claimed that the shelter they provided was out of obedience to God so she will not stop with the program.
First Liberty also cited a pending case in the United States Supreme Court to prove its point. They filed an amicus brief for the said case, which is Seattle's Union Gospel Mission v. Woods, so that the Supreme Court can clarify whether the First Amendment really protects religious ministries from only hiring people with the same religious beliefs.
According to the organization, Seattle's Union Gospel Mission also provides food and shelter to the homeless. Seattle's Union also assists in job placement and legal services for those who are in addiction recovery. The mission was sued by Attorney Mattew Woods when he was not hired by Seattle's Union on the grounds of not sharing or living according to the Christian beliefs on marriage and sexuality.
The case was filed with the Washington State Supreme Court, which remarkably ruled in favor of Woods. The court reasoned that the law requires the employment of those not having the same beliefs as the Mission's. The judge even alleged that the state can require religious non-profits and houses of worship to employ people who oppose their religious beliefs.
"As these cases demonstrate, religious organizations do essential work to care for vulnerable communities. Yet, the government is often quick to take aim at those ministries simply because of their religious beliefs," First Liberty said.