New Lawsuit Calls Restrictions On Free Food Services Unconstitutional

Of the innumerable ripple effects on society caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, food insecurity has been one of the most damaging. According to the nonprofit Feeding America, prior to the pandemic, in 2019, food insecurity — defined as a "lack of access to sufficient food due to limited financial resources" — was at an all-time low in the United States, affecting one in nine adults and one in seven children. But as a result of the far-reaching economic effects of COVID-19, including mass unemployment, the organization has called attention to a surge of food insecurity that affected an estimated one in eight adults and one in six children in 2021.

Due to these harsh realities, charitable food organizations such as food banks and soup kitchens are more important than ever. And in Oregon, a church has been doing its part by feeding its local community six days a week — an effort that its hometown of Brookings is trying to shut down. Now, the church is fighting back with a lawsuit.

Serving the community for decades

Founded in 1946, St. Timothy's Episcopal Church in Brookings, Oregon has been serving the community for decades, providing health clinics, a food bank, showers, and internet access, among other services, to the town's community of people in need. According to a statement released by the church, St. Timothy's upped its efforts at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, expanding its free meals program at a time when almost all other churches in the area suspended in-person programming. According to NPR, the church was serving free lunch six days a week — an effort that is being put in danger by a new ordinance that limits how many meals charities can serve per week.

According to the church's press release, in response to the expanded meal program, about 30 Brookings residents signed a petition criticizing the church's activities and other efforts to aid the homeless and underserved. After receiving the petition, Brookings passed an ordinance requiring local churches to apply for a permit granting the rights to provide "benevolent meal service" — but even when approved, only two meals per week can be served (via OPB). St. Timothy's never cut back on the amount of meals it provides, and on January 28 filed a lawsuit against the city of Brookings challenging the constitutionality of the ordinance.

Legal restrictions on free meals programs across the country

"We've been serving our community here for decades and picking up the slack where the need exists and no one else is stepping in," Reverend Bernie Lindley, St. Timothy's vicar, declared in the church's press release. "We have no intention of stopping now and we're prepared to hold fast to our beliefs. We won't abandon the people of Brookings who need our help, even when we're being threatened." Together with St. Timothy's, the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon is petitioning a federal court in Oregon to toss out the new ordinance.

Unfortunately, the situation unfolding in Oregon is not a unique one. Across the U.S., various laws and ordinances ban or limit meal services that aid the homeless population, usually citing infectious diseases concerns, such as in El Cajon, California, when, in 2018, 12 volunteers handing out free food were charged with misdemeanor offenses (via Newsweek). El Cajon city council members cited a local outbreak of Hepatitis A as among the reasons to crack down on free meals.

"The St. Timothy's meal program is not only a vital service for many, but also a protected expression of faith," said Samantha Sondag, a lawyer at Stoel Rives, the law firm representing the church in its case. "Father Bernie and the Church have the right to continue practicing their beliefs by assisting those in need, as they have for decades."