Justice Department files statement of interest supporting Oregon church’s free meal program

by | Nov 28, 2023

During Thanksgiving week, the Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in federal court. The statement argues that a local ordinance restricting a church’s free meal program to no more than twice per week is a violation of the church’s religious freedom rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

The church is St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Brookings, Oregon. The city argues that limiting the program to twice a week does not amount to a “substantial burden” on the church’s religious exercise. But “feeding people who are poor and unhoused,” the Justice Department explained, “is part of how they exercise their faith.” From the statement:

The ordinance effectively requires St. Timothy’s to significantly reduce the number of days it serves meals to persons in need. Plaintiffs vociferously objected to this ordinance on grounds that it compels them to violate their religious beliefs to feed those in need “when the need exists.” For example, on August 2, 2021, Michael C. Dotten, the Chancellor of the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon, wrote a letter to the City objecting to its proposal to limit when and how often the Church could offer meals, explaining that the Church “feed[s] the poor multitudes” at “Jesus’ command” and that “the poor and elderly may not . . . be fed on the City’s arbitrary ‘frequency and volume’ preferences,” but “must be fed when they are hungry.”

The Justice Department is urging the court to reject the city’s motion for summary judgment. Their involvement in the case is part of a larger project, announced in 2018, to protect the rights of religious institutions, including houses of worship, to exercise their faith on their land. The DOJ’s Place to Worship Initiative is a program that focuses on RLUIPA, a federal law that prohibits local governments from substantially burdening religious exercise through land use regulations. The Justice Department has filed statements of interest in several cases like St. Timothy’s involving RLUIPA.

A DOJ press release explains why this case is important:

“Many churches and faith-based organizations across the country are on the front lines serving the critical needs of people experiencing hunger and homelessness,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “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.”

For more on this important federal law, see BJC’s resource page on RLUIPA.