District Court: Prohibiting Religious Groups From Feeding the Homeless in Park Likely to Violate Pennsylvania RFRA

Here’s an interesting case from Philadelphia involving the religious mission to feed the homeless.  The City of Philadelphia enacted a local ordinance prohibiting the distribution of food free of charge to three or more people anywhere in the Fairmont Park System (picnics for individual families, school trips, and so on, as well as special events, were exempted from the ordinance).  The City’s reasons for the ordinance had to do with civil order, sanitation, and also an asserted dignitarian interest on behalf of the homeless.  Several Christian religious groups had for decades distributed food to the homeless in the parks, but the mayor wanted these programs moved indoors.  A temporary relocation effort of one of the religious groups’ food-sharing programs resulted in a drastic reduction in the number of homeless people who partook of the food-sharing services.

Plaintiffs sought a preliminary injunction prohibiting the City from enforcing the ordinance, alleging that the ordinance violated their rights under the Pennsylvania Religious Freedom Protection Act (PRFPA), which is essentially Pennsylvania’s version of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as well as the First Amendment.  Readers will know that RFRA (as well as PRFPA) reinstated the interest-balancing test which preceded Employment Division v. Smith.  (One interesting feature of PRFPA is that it requires “clear and convincing evidence” as its standard for the “substantial burden” component).

The Court granted the preliminary injunction on PRFPA grounds (it avoided the constitutional issue).  It held that the plaintiffs (1) have a sincere belief that it is their religious obligation to “provide sustenance to the poor and needy” (and, added the Court, “Plaintiffs are not unique in this respect.  Acts of charity are central to Christian worship”); (2) the ordinance constitutes a “substantial burden” on the free exercise of plaintiffs’ religion; (3) the dignitarian “compelling interest” offered by the City was “difficult to comprehend”: “I am at a loss to understand how taking choice away from the homeless advances their dignity”; (4) even if reducing litter and other waste is a “compelling interest” (about which the Court expressed some skepticism), the City had not used the least restrictive means to achieve that interest (portable restrooms, trash compactors, additional maintenance staff, and other methods were raised by the Court).

One noteworthy item, which may have various broader applications.  In response to the City’s claim that it did not burden the plaintiffs’ free exercise because it did not impose “restrictions upon praying or preaching or reading the Gospel or engaging with the homeless [in the Park],” the Court said:

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 . . . . But defendants’ argument is not persuasive for an additional and more fundamental reason. Essentially, defendants have assumed the authority to ascribe [to] some of plaintiffs’ religious activities more religious significance than others, irrespective of the significance that plaintiffs themselves ascribe to their own religious activities. Defendants compound this error by offering to grant Rev. Little a limited exception for the food and drink she uses during her Communion service, which they characterize as a “core component of a religious service,” but not for the food Rev. Little shares with the homeless after the service despite the fact that Rev. Little considers this food an ongoing representation of the Communion observed during the service . . . . It is no more appropriate for defendants to “presume to determine the place of a particular belief in a religion” than it would be for me to do so.
The case is Chosen 300 Ministries, Inc. v. City of Philadelphia, 2012 WL 3235317 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 9, 2012).