Courtroom interior_newWritten by Don Byrd

Via Religion Clause, a federal judge in Texas has found a Dallas law restricting the feeding of homeless is a violation of religious freedom rights as protected by the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The Court found the city lacked a compelling government interest, despite the claim that feeding programs run by local ministries adversely impacted the ability to provide shelter and other services to the homeless.

From the judge’s conclusion (pdf):

[T]he homeless feeders are religiously motivated institutions that are afforded statutory protection to practice their religions without being substantially burdened by government regulation. The Ordinance’s Homeless Feeder Defense requirements were instituted based on speculation and assumptions. The City did not establish that any of its interests have been harmed by Plaintiffs’ conduct. What the City did establish is that it wants to provide as many homeless people as possible with food, social services, showers, safety, job counseling, and beds in an effort to get them off the streets. The City believes that organizations that feed the homeless on the street are thwarting the City’s efforts to get the homeless off the streets. The City has not established that its interest in regulating Plaintiffs in this way justifies the substantial burden on Plaintiffs’ free exercise — in other words, it has not established the balance weighs in its favor.”

For a homeless ministry, feeding the hungry is about as central as it gets to religious motivation. It’s a shame those organizations and the city had to take on an adversarial relationship, rather than working to find ways to build upon the work of each other to reach a common goal. Here, the high standard of RFRA shows. If they are not going to work harmoniously on that goal, the law does not automatically presume the government’s efforts must be upheld at the expense of the ministry’s. Indeed, an effort to curtail the latter must be supported by a very strong rationale.