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A Dream Denied:
The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities

IV. Challenges to Restrictions on Feedings

A. Federal Cases

Stuart Circle Parish v. Board of Zoning Appeals of the City of Richmond, 946 F. Supp. 1225 (E. D. Va. 1996).
Stuart Circle Parish, a partnership of six churches of different dominations in the Stuart Circle area of Richmond, Virginia, sought a temporary restraining order and permanent injunctive relief to bar enforcement against them of a zoning code limiting feeding and housing programs for homeless individuals.  The ordinance limited feeding and housing programs to up to 30 homeless individuals for up to seven days between October and April.  Plaintiffs conduct a “meal ministry” for 45 minutes every Sunday, to provide “worship, hospitality, pastoral care, and a healthful meal to the urban poor of Richmond.   Some, but not all, of the attendees are homeless.  Neighbors of the host church complained to the city’s zoning administrator, alleging unruly behavior by attendees of the meal ministry.  The zoning administrator found that plaintiffs violated the city ordinance limiting feeding and housing programs.  Although plaintiffs appealed, the Board of Zoning Appeals upheld the determination.

Plaintiffs then brought suit in federal district court.  Plaintiffs alleged that their rights to free exercise of religion were protected by the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom of Restoration Act (the “RFRA”) and would be violated if the ordinance were enforced against them.  To plaintiffs, the meal ministry is “the physical embodiment of a central tenet of the Christian faith, ministering to the poor, the hungry and the homeless in the community.”   Furthermore, plaintiffs argued that injunctive relief would not work irreparable injury on the city and that the city failed to show a compelling state interest, especially given that there was no showing of unruly and disruptive behavior on more than one occasion.

The court granted plaintiffs’ motion for a temporary restraining order.  The court held that plaintiffs would suffer irreparable injury without such injunctive relief because they would otherwise be prevented from engaging in the free exercise of their religion.  In addition, defendants failed to show that the injunctive relief would work irreparable injury on them; such injunctive relief would only “return the parties to their status quo ante positions.”  The court also found that plaintiffs were likely to succeed on the merits because the plaintiffs demonstrated that the meal ministry is a central tenet of their religious practice and that it is important that the meal ministry be provided in the church.  On the other hand, the city failed to show a compelling state interest in prohibiting plaintiffs from continuing their meal ministry as currently conducted.  Lastly, the court found that granting the temporary restraining order serves the public interest by providing a federal forum in which plaintiffs can vindicate their federal rights, which they were unable to do in the state process.

Daytona Rescue Mission, Inc. v. City of Daytona Beach, 885 F. Supp. 1554 (M. D. Fla. 1995).

Plaintiffs, Daytona Rescue Mission and its founder, president and executive director, Gabriel J. Varga, brought suit against the City of Daytona Beach and the Daytona Beach City Commission, alleging that enforcement of a city ordinance would violate their rights under the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (the “RFRA”).  Plaintiffs, who provide the homeless with portable bags of food and other services, sought injunctive and declaratory relief.  Plaintiffs argued that because the zoning code’s definition of Church or Religious Institution “excludes homeless shelters and food banks as customarily related activities,” their application for semi-public use in their facility’s zone was denied.  

The court held that because the zoning code provisions were neutral and generally applicable and furthered the city’s significant interest, plaintiffs’ rights under the Free Exercise Clause were not violated.  Similarly, “the burden on religion is at the lower end of the spectrum” and other facilities exist for the homeless in the city.   Therefore, the court held that protections under the RFRA did not apply.  Lastly, the court found that the city had a compelling interest in regulating shelters and food banks for the homeless and the zoning code was the least restrictive means to furthering that interest.

B. State Cases                       

Abbott v. City of Fort Lauderdale, 783 So. 2d 1213 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2001).

Plaintiff, who conducted a feeding program on the beach in Fort Lauderdale for homeless individuals, sought injunctive and declaratory relief to prevent the city from enforcing against him a city ordinance that prohibited the use of parks “for business or social service purposes unless authorized pursuant to a written agreement with the City.”   Arnold Abbot and his group, Love Thy Neighbor, had fed poor and homeless people each Wednesday on the public beach across from the Radisson Bahia Mar, as part of their religious beliefs.  The city believed that the regular feedings at a set location constituted a social service agency.  Moreover, the city noted that there were other services and agencies in the city that the homeless could rely upon, including at the Homeless Assistance Center, which allegedly made plaintiff’s feedings unnecessary.

The trial judge rejected plaintiff’s claims that the ordinance violated his rights to equal protection and due process of law as well as his First Amendment rights under the Florida Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1998 (the “FRFRA”).  The trial judge held that because the rule violated plaintiff’s rights under the FRFRA, the city would have to provide an alternative public property site where plaintiff could conduct the feeding program.

Plaintiff appealed, challenging on post-trial motion that the city’s site selection did not follow the intent of the trial court’s order.  The city cross-appealed the trial court’s holding that the rule violated the FRFRA.  On appeal, the court concluded that the trial court’s order implied that the alternative public property site “would at least be minimally suitable for the purposes intended” and would “represent[] the ‘least intrusive means’ of furthering the government’s compelling interests.”  The court reversed and remanded to the trial judge to determine whether the selected site complied with the order’s requirements and with the FRFRA. 

946 F. Supp. 1225, 1228 (E. D. Va. 1996).

In 1997, the RFRA was struck down as unconstitutional.  City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U.S. 507.  However, a number of states have similar laws.

946 F. Supp. at 1228-29.

946 F. Supp. at 1236.

885 F. Supp. 1554, 1558 (M.D. Fla. 1995).

Id. at 1558-59.

783 So. 2d 1213, 1214 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2001).