In Philadelphia parks, churches fight to feed the homeless

Church ministries have been feeding homeless people in Philadelphia’s public parks for decades – not as a charitable gesture, but … Continued

Church ministries have been feeding homeless people in Philadelphia’s public parks for decades – not as a charitable gesture, but as an act of faith.

But earlier this year, city officials passed an ordinance banning public feeding of groups of more than three people in any city park – taking care, of course, to exempt city-sanctioned special events, family picnics and other gatherings the city finds more palatable.

The law targets church groups and charities that give meals to the homeless on land along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, home to major museums such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the newly opened Barnes Foundation art collection.

Why make it so hard to feed the homeless in the City of Brotherly Love?

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter’s official explanation for the ban is that he wants to move feeding the homeless inside (though the city is vague about how or when this will happen). Moreover, the city argues, church feeding programs are health hazards that create a mess in the park. The mayor offered part of the plaza surrounding City Hall as a temporary alternative location.

Religious leaders dismiss the city’s objections to meal distribution in public parks as bogus, pointing out that no one has gotten sick from the food distributed and volunteers clean up the space used. Moreover, many of the homeless who live in the park are reluctant to travel elsewhere (leaving their few possessions) – and some are too disabled to do so.

According to critics of the law, the real reason for the ban is the proximity of the feeding programs to tourist attractions, especially the new $150 million building housing the Barnes Foundation collection that opened in May.

To stop the law from taking effect, religious groups (with support from the American Civil Liberties Union) filed suit in federal court charging that prohibiting churches from feeding the homeless in city parks violates religious freedom (
Chosen 300 Ministries, Inc. v. City of Philadelphia)
.

The city responded by claiming that because the law “imposes no restrictions upon praying or preaching or reading the Gospel or engaging with the homeless,” the ban on feeding doesn’t interfere with the churches’ right to practice their faith.

In July, U.S. District Judge William H. Yohn, Jr., rejected the city’s argument and granted a temporary injunction barring implementation of the law. In a written opinion issued two weeks ago explaining his order, the judge wrote that government has no business ascribing some of the churches’ religious activities more religious significance than others.

To support his conclusion that the park feeding ban violated the religious freedom of the ministries, Yohn relied not on the First Amendment, as might be expected, but on the Pennsylvania Religious Freedom Protection Act.

That’s because the U.S. Supreme Court weakened the protections of the First Amendment’s free exercise clause in 1990, declaring that government no longer had to show a compelling state interest before denying religious exemptions to generally applicable government laws that substantially burden the free exercise of religion (
Employment Division v. Smith
).

In response to the court’s 1990 ruling, some states – including Pennsylvania – have passed legislation restoring the “compelling interest” test.

According to Yohn, Philadelphia’s public feeding ban would likely fail that test because the city has not shown that governmental interests are strong enough to override religious freedom in this case. Moreover, the city has not provided a truly viable alternative for relocating the feeding programs.

Philadelphia is not the only city trying to move homeless people and those who serve them out of public parks. According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, more than 50 other cities have passed anti-camping and anti-feeding ordinances.

Nutter is appealing the court injunction. But whatever happens in the courts, church leaders in Philadelphia promise to keep the meals coming – even if it means defying the law.

After all, when it comes to helping “the least of these,” they believe in obeying a higher law.


Charles C. Haynes

is senior scholar at the

Freedom Forum First Amendment Center

and director of the

Religious Freedom Education Project

at the

Newseum

in Washington.

  • mark_ramstein

    First sentence–”Church ministries have been feeding homeless people in Philadelphia’s public parks for decades…”

    DECADES!

    Maybe if they stop feeding them (read enabling them), there would be less homeless.

  • ThomasBaum

    It is truly sad when helping your fellow human being is deemed illegal.

  • one nation

    Are they homeless or bums. A homeless person wants work and to be on their own feet. Bums are like pigeons that do not fly.

Read More Articles

Valle Header Art
My Life Depended on the Very Act of Writing

How I was saved by writing about God and cancer.

shutterstock_188545496
Sociologist: Religion Can Predict Sexual Behavior

“Religion and sex are tracking each other like never before,” says sociologist Mark Regnerus.

5783999789_9d06e5d7df_b
The Internet Is Not Killing Religion. So What Is?

Why is religion in decline in the modern world? And what can save it?

river dusk
Cleaner, Lighter, Closer

What’s a fella got to do to be baptized?

shutterstock_188022491
Magical Thinking and the Canonization of Two Popes

Why Pope Francis is canonizing two popes for all of the world wide web to see.

987_00
An Ayatollah’s Gift to Baha’is, Iran’s Largest Religious Minority

An ayatollah offers a beautiful symbolic gesture against a backdrop of violent persecution.

Screenshot 2014-04-23 11.40.54
Atheists Bad, Christians Good: A Review of “God’s Not Dead”

A smug Christian movie about smug atheists leads to an inevitable happy ending.

shutterstock_134310734
Ten Ways to Make Your Church Autism-Friendly

The author of the Church of England’s autism guidelines shares advice any church can follow.

Pile_of_trash_2
Pope Francis: Stop the Culture of Waste

What is the human cost of our tendency to throw away?

chapel door
“Sometimes You Find Something Quiet and Holy”: A New York Story

In a hidden, underground sanctuary, we were all together for a few minutes in this sweet and holy mystery.

shutterstock_178468880
Mary Magdalene, the Closest Friend of Jesus

She’s been ignored, dismissed, and misunderstood. But the story of Easter makes it clear that Mary was Jesus’ most faithful friend.

sunset-hair
From Passover to Easter: Why I’m Grateful to be Jewish, Christian, and Alive

Passover with friends. Easter with family. It’s almost enough to make you believe in God.

colbert
Top 10 Reasons We’re Glad A Catholic Colbert Is Taking Over Letterman’s “Late Show”

How might we love Stephen Colbert as the “Late Show” host? Let us count the ways.

emptytomb
God’s Not Dead? Why the Good News Is Better than That

The resurrection of Jesus is not a matter of private faith — it’s a proclamation for the whole world.

shutterstock_186795503
The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

egg.jpg
Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.