- The Washington Times - Friday, February 18, 2000

A 100-year-old United Methodist Church in Portland, Ore., has been ordered by a city official to limit attendance at its worship services and to shut down a meals program for the homeless and working poor it has been running for the past 16 years.
Nearly the entire religious community in Portland including Protestants of all denominations, Catholics, Jews and Muslims has rallied in support of Sunnyside Centenary United Methodist Church, which is appealing the city’s order.
Local church groups and religious scholars charge that last month’s ruling by Portland land-use officer Elizabeth Normand infringes on religious freedoms protected by the First Amendment.
“I’ve really been impressed by the religious community coming together on our behalf. Oregon is the least religious state in the union,” said the Rev. Timothy Lewis, co-pastor at the Sunnyside Centenary Church.
Mr. Lewis noted that last Sunday about 1,200 people of different faiths filled the church for a rally to protest Mrs. Normand’s Jan. 17 ruling. Her order was issued in response to a complaint filed with the city by the Sunnyside Community Association.
“This is the first case I’m aware of in which a government official has tried to restrict attendance at a particular church,” said Derek Davis, director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University, in a telephone interview.
Sunnyside is an older Portland neighborhood that was once low-income but has become upscale in recent years with the arrival of young professionals.
Its community association sought to end the twice-weekly program of prayer, singing, Bible study and dinner the local United Methodist church offers the poor.
Some residents charged that the program, normally attended by about 100 people, attracts alcoholics and drug addicts who cause disturbances.
Mr. Lewis insists any such problems “attributed to the church have diminished to almost nothing” as a result of security measures it has taken. The measures include starting a hot line for residents to report concerns, hiring a security guard, and training a volunteer patrolman to walk the neighborhood during the program.
“We have about eight street drinkers in our area. Two live in a house about a block away from the church, so incidents do occur, but all these people are banned from our program,” said Mr. Lewis.
In the last 10 years, zoning conflicts between churches and cities have become a leading church-state issue. Disputes have arisen over church soup kitchens or homeless shelters in suburbs, expansion of church facilities, parking squeezes on Sunday, breaches of noise ordinances or disagreements on what kind of meetings the zoning permits.
Growing churches that seek new land to relocate often cannot win zoning approvals in the face of public protest over traffic. In 1997, the Supreme Court sided with the city of Borne, Texas, in its denying a building permit to a Catholic church seeking to expand.
While the media have portrayed the Sunnyside Church’s program as a soup kitchen for the homeless, church officials note that only a third of participants are homeless. The majority, they say, are low-income working people.
Nevertheless, Mrs. Normand’s 30-page ruling ordered that the meals program be shut down. It also imposed an attendance limit of 70 worshippers at the church, which can hold up to 500 persons.
The neighborhood association had not asked for such an attendance cap, and Mrs. Normand has refused to say why she imposed it. In several media interviews, she said her job was “quasi-judicial,” and she was not required to explain decisions.
In addition, the land-use order placed conditions on the operation of the Sunnyside Church’s nighttime homeless shelter, a day care center and its Indochinese Socialization Center.
Mr. Lewis said 75 persons attended worship services last Sunday, five more than the number allowed by the city ruling. But because the church has appealed Mrs. Normand’s order, the attendance cap is not yet in effect. The City Council will hear the church’s appeal March 1.
Late last week, Portland’s Senior Deputy City Attorney Kathryn Beaumont issued a memorandum, which recommended that the City Council delete “references to specific numerical limitations” on church attendance that are now part of Mrs. Normand’s order.
“Having a civil official place restrictions on church attendance is highly suspect… . I’m shocked and appalled,” Mr. Davis said.
He read from an opinion in the 1947 Supreme Court case of Everson vs. the Board of Education of Ewing, N.J., in which Justice Hugo Black outlined the parameters of religious freedom under the First Amendment. “He wrote that neither states nor the federal government can force or influence any person to go to or remain away from church against his will,” said Mr. Davis.
Neither Miss Beaumont nor Mrs. Normand returned repeated phone calls from The Washington Times.
Mr. Lewis said he is hopeful the Portland City Council will do away with the attendance cap. But he said the church is still fighting to continue its meals program. He insists those programs, held on Wednesdays and Fridays, are also worship services.
“We’re afraid that the city will interpret religious freedom and expression as applying only to [conventional] worship services,” the minister said.
John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit organization that provides free legal and educational services, said Thursday the city of Portland “must show a compelling state interest to shut down” the meals program.
“It sounds as if this is a good program … and that this is another case of government overreach,” Mr. Whitehead said.

Larry Witham contributed to this report.

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