In late 2023, the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) indicated support for a church in Oregon after the church began having legal issues with a homeless meal program the church had been running for several years.
St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church (“St. Timothy’s), located in Brookings, Oregon, has been providing meals to the homeless population up to six days per week and even throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
But, in 2021, Brookings city officials ordered the Church could only provide meals up to two days per week. The church then sued the city. The lawsuit alleged the City of Brookings imposed a “substantial burden” on the religious exercise of St. Timothy’s in direct violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”). Reverend Bernie Lindley stated to local news that feeding people “isn’t a hobby” and that his church feels it is a “deeply held religious belief” to assist those in need.
In a press release, the DOJ filed a statement of interest “in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon explaining that a city’s decision to restrict a church’s distribution of meals to people who are homeless or hungry may have substantially burdened religious exercise” under RLUIPA. Since June 2018, the DOJ has offered support to religious institutions through Place to Worship Initiative, which focuses on RLUIPA’s provisions that protect the rights of houses of worship and other religious institutions to worship on their land.
Further, the DOJ sees burdening religious institutional as an ongoing problem in the United States. According to Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, “Many churches and faith-based organizations across the country are on the front lines serving the critical needs of people experiencing hunger and homelessness…” and “discriminatory zoning restrictions that burden and limit religious organizations’ use of their land violate federal antidiscrimination laws. The Justice Department is committed to enforcing federal civil rights laws to ensure that all religious groups can freely exercise their religious beliefs.”
If your place of worship feels your ability to practice has been substantially burdened by the government, please contact the attorneys at Dalton & Tomich to resolve your issues.