In 2012, when the Obama Administration issued its now infamous HHS Mandate requiring coverage of contraceptives in all healthcare plans, it exempted churches but pointedly refused to exempt church-sponsored institutions like schools and hospitals.
In response, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops protested that the ruling violates the First Amendment’s protection for freedom of religion. Instructing the young and caring for the sick, the bishops argued, is every bit as much an expression of religion as what goes on within the four walls of a church building.
The bishops rightly viewed the HHS Mandate as an illegitimate attempt to redefine religious liberty as merely the freedom to worship.
But the HHS mandate isn’t the only attempt by the state to tell Christians and others where and how they may live out their faith. In over 50 cities across the United States there are now bans on feeding the homeless in public spaces, including parks and street corners. Cities like Orlando, San Diego, Houston, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, Dallas have made it illegal or extremely difficult to dispense food and water in the places where the homeless most naturally congregate. Even Los Angeles will soon follow suit.
In fact, a report to be published later this month by the National Coalition for the Homeless says that between January 2013 and January 2014 an additional 33 cities passed food-sharing restrictions.
In Olympia, WA, the Christian group Crazy Faith Ministries had provided meals to the homeless twice a week at a municipal parking lot across the street from the city dump. Then last October local police ordered the group to stop, an order they defied on explicitly faith-based grounds. In December, the Olympia City Council backed the police by passing an ordinance restricting the use of municipal parking lots to parking only. Crazy Faith has continued their “feeds” in spite of the ordinance, but continue to be harassed and threatened with fines and even criminal charges.
In Birmingham, AL, police stopped Pastor Rick Woods of The Lords House of Prayer from delivering food to the homeless in late March of this year. Ostensibly, the police were enforcing a new city ordinance aimed at regulating commercial food trucks. But of course Pastor Woods doesn’t operate a commercial food truck. He packs up hot food prepared in his church’s kitchen and feeds people under overpasses, in back alleys, and beside rural campsites. Like the group in Olympia, Pastor Woods intends to defy the ban.
Last August, police in Raleigh, NC, halted the Saturday morning biscuit handout conducted by Rev. Hugh Hollowell, of Love Wins Ministries. Hollowell, a Mennonite pastor, founded Love Wins in 2007 and has distributed food in Raleigh’s Moore Square every weekend for six years. Many of Raleigh’s soup kitchens are closed weekends, which means that the homeless in central Raleigh rely on Hollowell’s Saturday and Sunday morning sausage biscuits for at least one good meal. In this case, the howls of protest that arose from the religious community forced the city of Raleigh to provide a reprieve.
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter bills his city’s ban on public food sharing as an element in the city’s overall strategy for addressing homelessness. But