Courtroom interior_newWritten by Don Byrd

The Dallas City Council made changes to a food-safety law earlier this week, after a judge last year ruled its enforcement against a homeless ministry unconstitutional. The ordinance previously required running water, bathroom services and prior notification to the city for any free feeding of people. The court ruled those requirements unlawfully restricted the religious exercise of a pair of homeless ministries under the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The Dallas Morning-News explains the changes:

The ordinance’s new write-through removes across-the-board mandates that anyone feeding people for free notify the city in advance and provide running water and bathroom services. Instead, groups must provide notice if they intend to serve more than 75 people and must provide at least hand sanitizer, if not water for washing.

It leaves in place some basic guidelines on food safety, such as the temperature of food. The ordinance is a compromise drafted with the help of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty . . .

This kind of issue comes up more often than you might think, as municipalities try – for various reasons – to regulate public feeding or other social service programs. Homeless ministries typically find such regulations hinders their calling to care for the poor.

In May, a California church in Ventura sued the city after being denied a permit to provide social services. A judge in Pennsylvania in 2012 issued an injunction barring Philadelphia officials from enforcing an ordinance outlawing feeding the homeless in a public park. What the City failed to appreciate, the judge wrote, “is that to plaintiffs, sharing food with the poor is as much a form of religious worship as is prayer, preaching, or reading the Bible.”

Religious exercise takes many forms. That is one of the reasons why RFRA laws are so important, to protect the perhaps unintended consequences to religion of unnecessary government regulation.