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November 2023

DOJ Files Statement of Interest Supporting Church’s Free Meal Program

The Justice Department 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 the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). A statement of interest may be filed by the Department of Justice pursuant to RLUIPA for purposes of establishing the government’s position in a dispute and for protection of the public generally. 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. 

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 Justice Department 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. The litigation is likely to resolve these issues.

For more information on RLUIPA and similar land use, First Amendment and constitutional matters, please contact Joseph McGill at 734-742-1800. Additionally, please see our RLUIPA primer that provides additional information about RLUIPA, as well as our RLUIPA Resources page that tracks RLUIPA and similar First Amendment cases throughout the U.S.