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Banning helping the homeless is the latest religious liberty violation

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John Burger - published on 12/27/21 - updated on 12/27/21

Brookings, Oregon, earns Becket's 2021 Ebenezer Award. Church vows defiance.

The pastor of an Episcopal church in Oregon said he will defy a town edict that prohibits his flock from feeding homeless people more than twice a week.

The town has earned the annual Ebenezer Award from the Becket religious liberty law firm, named after the infamous curmudgeon and cheapskate Scrooge from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

“The most outrageous offender of this year’s Christmas and Hanukkah season and Becket’s 2021 Ebenezer Award winner is the Brookings, Oregon, City Council for restricting church efforts to feed the homeless,” Becket said in a press release. “An ordinance passed in late October by the council has severely restricted area ministries like St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church from feeding the city’s rapidly growing homeless population.”

The ordinance was passed after some city residents complained about safety issues during the hours when church ministries were operating their soup kitchens. The new regulation cuts St. Timothy’s food ministry from four days a week to just two. The vicar of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, Rev. Bernie Lindley calls the ordinance unjust, noting that it solves nothing and prevents his ministry from exercising Christian charity. 

“Feeding hungry people is at the core of what our church believes Jesus calls us to do,” said Lindley. “We do not see how a municipality can interfere with that mission without violating our constitutional right to freely practice our faith.”

Newark, New Jersey, restricts feeding of homeless

Brookings is not alone, however. Just before Thanksgiving, the city of Newark, New Jersey, sent out an email to churches and relief organizations announcing that it was prohibiting feeding homeless people in public places, the New York Times reported. Later, the city modified the regulation, saying that groups who give out food would need a permit and that the new rule would be specifically targeted at those who give food to the homeless, the Times said. Violators are subject to a fine. 

“Newark officials offered various reasons for the crackdown, saying that the city needed to ensure that food being given out was safe, and that distributing food in public places actually encouraged street homelessness,” the newspaper said. “The city wants those who wish to donate food to bring it to shelters and soup kitchens instead.”

In Brookings, Oregon, meanwhile, St. Timothy’s is only carrying on a ministry to the homeless that it’s been doing for years. That has included a soup kitchen and pantry; showers and restrooms, and an advocacy team that helps people sign up for affordable housing wait lists, get ID cards and obtain benefits.

But along with the increase in homelessness during the pandemic era, Brookings has seen a backlash against the homeless and those who serve them. 

“In June, 29 residents petitioned the city to stop St. Timothy’s homeless ministries, citing dangerous and disruptive behavior by people staying in the parish’s parking lot,” Episcopal News Service reported. “The mayor and members of the city council have been critical of providing services to homeless people, saying it attracts them – and problems associated with them – to the area.”

But Becket calls religious ministries like St. Timothy’s “essential,” as the city doesn’t provide homeless services and the county doesn’t have shelters to help keep the homeless warm and indoors during the cold winter months. 

“Churches like St. Timothy’s are happy to step in to provide care and resources that the city is incapable of providing,” the law firm said.  

“Lockdowns and isolation have caused a surge in homelessness across the country, and church ministries should be supported for the work they are doing to help restore human dignity to the most vulnerable,” said Montse Alvarado, Becket’s vice president and executive director. “I applaud St. Timothy’s for not backing down to the whims of government bureaucrats and continuing to do what religious ministries all around this country do best in times of adversity – serve.”

Tags:
CharityReligious Freedom
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