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 …