June 16, 2024

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From Kalapuya lands in the Willamette watershed

US DOJ backs St. Timothy’s right to feed the hungry in lawsuit against City of Brookings

3 min read
The DOJ says St. Timothy’s provision of meals to people in need is protected religious exercise: "The city’s attempt to restrict St. Timothy’s meal service may have substantially burdened the church’s religious exercise by forcing it to violate its beliefs in order to comply with local land use laws."

from the United States Department of Justice

The Justice Department filed a statement of interest Nov. 21 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 the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). 

The statement of interest was filed in St. Timothy’s Church v. City of Brookings, Or., a lawsuit alleging that the City of Brookings imposed a substantial burden on the religious exercise of St. Timothy’s, an Episcopalian church, with a recently enacted ordinance that prohibits the church from serving free meals to persons in need more than two days per week, subject to a discretionary permit. 

“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 over a decade before this ordinance was enacted, St. Timothy’s had been providing meal service up to four days per week, and as many as six days per week, including during the Covid-19 pandemic, based on community need. The church has even testified that it feels a religious duty to provide food to those in need.

The city argued in part that RLUIPA did not apply to the city’s actions against St. Timothy’s and that the ordinance did not substantially burden St. Timothy’s religious exercise. The department is refuting the city’s claims. Specifically, it asserts that RLUIPA’s protections apply in this context, that St. Timothy’s provision of meals to people in need is protected religious exercise and that the city’s attempt to restrict St. Timothy’s meal service may have substantially burdened the church’s religious exercise by forcing it to violate its beliefs in order to comply with local land use laws.

RLUIPA is a federal law that protects religious institutions from unduly burdensome or discriminatory land use regulations. In June 2018, the Justice Department announced its 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. More information is available at www.justice.gov/crt/placetoworship

As part of this initiative, the department has filed statements of interest in other RLUIPA cases involving faith-based services to persons in need, including in Micah’s Way v. City of Santa Ana (Civil Rights Division | Statement of Interest in Micah’s Way v. City of Santa Ana (C.D. Cal.) | United States Department of Justice). Additionally, the department recently hosted an outreach forum with religious leaders at Seton Hall Law School in Newark, New Jersey, on combating religious discrimination under RLUIPA, and plans to hold additional outreach events in California and Michigan. 

Individuals who believe they have been subjected to discrimination in land use or zoning decisions may contact the U.S. Attorney’s Office Civil Division’s Civil Rights Section at (213) 894-2879 or the Civil Rights Division’s Housing and Civil Enforcement Section at (833) 591-0291 or may submit a complaint through the complaint portal on the Place to Worship Initiative website.

More information about RLUIPA, including questions and answers about the law and other documents, can be found at www.justice.gov/crt/about/hce/rluipaexplain.php.

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