City puts limits on church – Brief Article

MORE THAN 1,100 religious leaders, churchgoers and civic activists gathered in Portland, Oregon, on February 13 to protest a city official’s ruling that closed down a meals ministry and set a limit on worship attendance at a local church. The ruling against Sunny-side Centenary United Methodist Church has sparked a debate over constitutional rights and also focused attention on the challenges of ministering to the hungry and homeless.

The 800-seat sanctuary of First United Methodist Church in downtown Portland was packed with a standing-room-only crowd for the 90-minute meeting. Speakers explained the issue and expressed concern over the city’s decision. People from all walks of life and religious affiliations pledged support to Sunnyside’s campaign to have the decision overturned when the Portland City Council considers the issue March 1.

“The Wednesday night supper is a place where neighbors, church members and friends, including but not limited to the homeless, gather for common fellowship, prayer, singing and dining together,” said Pat Schwiebert of Metanoia Peace Community, a United Methodist group and one of the ministry’s sponsors. Ministry leaders were grateful to the neighbors for the “wakeup call,” she said. She believes the publicity has “opened the eyes of many people in Portland to the deeper issues of hunger, poverty and homelessness.”

The January 17 ruling by land-use hearings officer Elizabeth Normand revoked a conditional-use permit issued by the city for Wednesday and Friday evening suppers at Sunnyside. Normand went on to limit attendance at Sunday morning worship to 70 participants. Sunnyside’s 100-year-old sanctuary seats 400. That part of the ruling turned the issue into a question of First Amendment rights. “The issue of freedom of religious expression is a critical one in our society,” said Steve Sprecher, Metro District superintendent of the UMC’s Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference (regional body). “I think this is one of those things where the entire religious community of Portland feels very threatened.”

Derek Davis, director of the J. M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University in Texas, said that prior to hearing about this case, he was “not aware of any civil official who has tried to restrict the number of persons attending Sunday services.” Any such effort, Davis pointed out, “would appear to be prohibited by a 1947 Supreme Court ruling–Emerson v. Board of Education–in which Hugo Black wrote that `neither a state nor the federal government can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will.'” On February 11 the city attorney’s office recommended withdrawing the attendance limit but retaining the restrictions on the meals programs.

In the days since Normand’s decision, opposition among religious leaders and church members has escalated. People working with the poor have expressed outrage, noting that budget-strapped city leaders have urged charitable and religious institutions to “take up the slack” in caring for the homeless and needy. Advocates for the poor fear the chilling effect the decision could have on similar faith-based programs in neighborhood settings.

Area residents have complained about aggressive patrons, trespassing incidents, litter, and alcohol- and drug-related activity by some people who also attend the evening programs. A resident standing outside Sunnyside church on February 13 said people who live in the neighborhood feel threatened by transients and others attracted by the suppers, but they also feel uncomfortable criticizing the programs. The Sunnyside neighborhood is an older area which has been undergoing gentrification.

The dispute at Sunnyside began in late 1998, when a group of residents complained to the Sunnyside Neighborhood Association about drunk and disorderly people hanging around the church during and after Wednesday and Friday evening outreach programs. The meals ministry has been based at Sunnyside since 1985 and is open to everyone, not just the poor and homeless.

In addition to residences, the neighborhood around Sunnyside Church has ten taverns and 14 retail stores selling beer and wine, along with a large department store, 24 hour drug store, public library, park and several social services agencies.

In response to the complaints, the church discontinued the Wednesday and Friday programs for three months and took steps to address the problems. It established a code of conduct to control unacceptable behavior; hired a security guard to enforce the code and bar people who exhibit antisocial behavior–a move that tripled the ministry’s budget; organized a volunteer foot patrol, trained by the city, to cover several blocks around the church before, during and after the suppers; and set up a church hotline so neighbors could report problems.

Area residents continued to object to the programs, and the neighborhood association petitioned the city to review conditional-use permits and bar the church from offering services to the needy. A review of the permits by city planning staff resulted in a recommendation to allow the church activities to continue, but with conditions designed to minimize adverse effects on the community.

In its appeal the church is asking the city to reject the limit on the number of participants in worship and Bible study on Sunday and on Wednesday nights; to overturn the prohibition on Wednesday and Friday suppers; and, through funding, to address the issues of hunger, poverty and the shortage of affordable housing. Sunnyside Church also is offering to formulate a “good-neighbor agreement” and have it monitored by the city.

“The issue is hospitality … about people opening their hearts to others,” said Rabbi Joseph Wolf of Congregation Havurah Shalom. “We must demand a cessation of this assault on kindness perpetrated against people of faith doing God’s work.”

COPYRIGHT 2000 The Christian Century Foundation

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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