Judge rules city must let religious charities feed the hungry

Published: Friday, March 29 2013 7:21 p.m. MDT

David Timothy, also known as the SoupMan, hands out food to the homeless in downtown Dallas, Thursday, Nov. 18, 2004.

LM OTERO, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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DALLAS — Six years ago, the City of Dallas passed an ordinance requiring faith-based and other charitable institutions to meet nearly a dozen requirements before feeding the homeless.

On Thursday, after a protracted legal battle, a U.S. District Judge ruled that the regulation impinged on the religious rights of two local organizations, Big Heart Ministries and Rip Parker Memorial Homeless Ministries, which had brought a lawsuit against the city.

As reported by the Dallas Morning News, the case pitted the ministries’ biblical imperative to “feed the hungry” against the city’s belief that such actions “were enabling (the homeless) to remain on the streets.”

The ordinance required the ministries to, among other things:

  • Provide portable toilets or restroom facilities for the homeless whenever feeding them.
  • Register with the city by completing its food safety training course and keep a copy of the registration on-hand whenever feeding the homeless.
  • Obtain written consent from property owners before providing food on property grounds.
  • Provide a hand washing facility or 5-gallon container with spigot, a catch bucket, soap and paper towels for preparers and servers whenever non-packaged food is served.
In his ruling, Judge Jorge Solis said, “The homeless feeders are religiously motivated institutions that are afforded statutory protection to practice their religions without being substantially burdened by government regulation.”

The city’s Homeless Feeder ordinance was “instituted based on speculation and assumptions,” he wrote, and its defense “did not establish that any of (the city’s) interests have been harmed by Plaintiffs’ conduct.”

Attorney Scott Barnard, who represented the plaintiffs, said the judge’s ruling is “particularly moving coming as it does on the eve of Good Friday and Easter.”

He said that both ministries are “excited about getting back to sharing food with the homeless."

"Relief organizations throughout the city can continue to provide critical services to its most vulnerable residents,” he continued.

The judge ordered the city to pay the plaintiffs’ attorney's fees and costs. Barnard, who took the case pro bono, said the money will be donated to charity.

Over the past year or so, the governments of New York City, Seattle and Philadelphia have enacted laws to, respectively, prevent restaurants from donating leftovers to homeless shelters, stop people from feeding the homeless in parks, and require citizens to obtain approval before feeding the homeless outdoors.

In each of these cases, officials cited food safety concerns. A federal judge later blocked the Philadelphia ban.

The state of Louisiana recently prevented a charity, Hunters for the Hungry, from donating 1,600 pounds of venison to a local shelter, also citing food safety concerns.

(Hat tip to the Institute on Religion & Democracy for these sources.)

David Ward is a writer living in Salt Lake City. Contact him at dward@deseretnews.com.

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