Written by Don Byrd
A Pennsylvania Judge has issued a preliminary injunction barring Philadelphia officials from enforcing a city ordinance that outlaws feeding the homeless in a public park. In findings of fact and law issued Friday, the Court agreed with religious organizations plaintiffs claiming the measure violated religious freedom rights.
Here are some highlights from the opinion:
Sharing food with the homeless is not merely incidental to plaintiffs’ religious activities in Fairmount Park. To plaintiffs, the act of sharing food is itself an act of worship. . . .
It is plaintiffs’ sincere and deeply-held belief that they are called by the teachings of Jesus Christ to serve the poor where the poor are found. Members of the King’s Jubilee consider the area of the Parkway in front of Philadelphia Family Court “sacred ground for acts that seek to replicate the acts of Jesus Christ in providing sustenance to the poor and needy where they are found.” It is their belief that “[t]he needy and homeless sanctify this ground.”
Plaintiffs have established that their sincerely held religious beliefs mandate that they share food with the homeless where the homeless are found. A high concentration of homeless people living on the streets in Philadelphia live along the Parkway. Section 110 does not simply constrain plaintiffs’ distribution of free food to the homeless along the Parkway, conduct mandated by plaintiffs’ religions, it terminates that activity all together. There can be no doubt that a regulation that completely prohibits an activity by definition “significantly constrains or inhibits” that activity.
What defendants fail to appreciate 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.
Defendants have failed to show that the ban will advance the dignity of the homeless in any respect, much less that the ban is the least restrictive means of accomplishing this goal.