Opinion filed supporting injunction against public feeding in parks

Howard Friedman, Religion Clause

As previously reported, last month a Pennsylvania federal district judge, from the bench, issued a temporary injunction against enforcement of Philadelphia’s new ordinance that bans public feeding of groups of more than 3 people in any city park.  The ordinance is part of the city’s efforts to close down an established program by Philadelphia churches to feed the homeless in city parks, and move the food program to indoor facilities. The court has now filed extensive findings of fact and conclusions of law to support the issuance of the temporary injunction.  In Chosen 300 Ministries v. City of Philadelphia, (ED PA, Aug. 9, 2012), the court concluded that the churches’ food-sharing program is an exercise of religion under the Pennsylvania Religious Freedom Protection Act and that the new regulation places a substantial burden on that exercise of religion.  It added:

Defendants argue that because the ban “imposes no restrictions upon praying or preaching or reading the Gospel or engaging with the homeless in [Fairmount Park],” the ban does not burden plaintiffs’ free exercise…. Essentially, defendants have assumed the authority to ascribe some of plaintiffs’ religious activities more religious significance than others, irrespective of the significance that plaintiffs themselves ascribe to their own religious activities.

The court also found that the regulation is not the least restrictive means to further a compelling governmental interest.  The court said:

There is some evidence that the true purpose behind the ban is to move plaintiffs’ activities away from the many cultural attractions along the Parkway in an effort to hide the City’s homeless population away from tourist eyes. Defendants vehemently deny this and do not attempt to defend the ban on this ground. Nor could they, as discriminating against unpopular groups is not a legitimate government purpose, let alone a compelling one….. [D]efendants have failed to show by a preponderance of the evidence that the ban is the least restrictive means of furthering their objectives of ending homelessness, feeding the homeless indoors, providing social services to the homeless, increasing the dignity of the homeless, or reducing the trash burden along the Parkway.