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Bans on Feeding the Hungry in Public are a Threat to Religious Liberty

Aleteia - published on 06/12/14

The HHS mandate isn’t the only attempt by the state to tell Christians how they may live out their faith.
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead. — James 2:14-17

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
Sister Mary Scullion, RSM, a longtime homeless advocate and executive director of Project H.O.M.E., says that in addition to violating religious liberty the policy has had a “devastating impact on the lives of those who live on the [Benjamin Franklin] parkway.”

In every case, these bans have directly threatened the right of Christians to practice what our Lord commands in Matthew 25: “For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat.” That is almost certainly not the intent – just as curbing the right of Catholics to teach and heal may not have been the intent of the HHS Mandate – but the effect is the same. And the response among Christians who feed the hungry has been the same as the Catholic bishops: We will not comply.

There are some who say that these bans don’t in fact prevent Christians from feeding the homeless, they merely proscribe doing so in public spaces. But those spaces belong as much to Christians as they do to anyone else. They also belong to homeless citizens, who often have nowhere else to go. If it is legitimate to use public space for parades, concerts, protests, and art shows then surely feeding the hungry is also a legitimate use, and one that serves the common good.

Some also say that feeding the homeless in public isn’t necessary because there are an abundance of indoor soup kitchens and food pantries available to them. But mobility is a major problem for the homeless, and indoor facilities are often not easily accessible. Many of the homeless also struggle with mental illness, which makes them wary of institutions of any kind, including shelters and soup kitchens.

Last, some also say that by feeding the homeless we only provide them with a greater incentive to stay that way. A better path, it is suggested, is to work on long-term solutions like affordable housing, mental health, addiction treatment, job training, and public transportation. These are all good things, but hunger isn’t a long-term challenge. Hunger is a need to be met today, right now. Try telling yourself that your own hunger can be delayed in favor of some long-term goal. Resolve not to eat today or this week in pursuit of that goal. See how rapidly your time-horizon shrinks to the next hour, even the next minute.

The Christian response to hunger isn’t defined by time and location, just as our responses to illness and ignorance aren’t defined by bureaucratic edicts. Our response is defined by the need, and this is how charity is an exercise in Christian liberty: we obey God, regardless. “Lift up and stretch out your hands, not to heaven, but to the poor,” said St. John Chrysostom, that towering doctor of the Greek Church, “for if you stretch forth your hands to the poor, you have reached the summit of heaven; but if you lift up your hands in prayer without sharing with the poor, it is worth nothing …  The poor are a greater temple than the sanctuary; this altar, the poor, you can raise up anywhere, on any street, and offer liturgy at any hour.”

Mark Gordonis a partner at PathTree, a consulting firm focused on organizational resilience and strategy. He also serves as president of both the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Diocese of Providence, and a local homeless shelter and soup kitchen. Mark is the author of Forty Days, Forty Graces: Essays By a Grateful Pilgrim. He and his wife Camila have been married for 30 years and they have two adult children.

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