The Freedom Center of Missouri has filed a federal lawsuit against the City of St. Louis over local regulations that prevent people from providing home-cooked meals to the homeless.
The suit alleges that the city policy violates the constitutional right to freely exercise religion, because it prevents people from following religious mandates to help others.
Last October, St. Louis police cited two men for giving bologna sandwiches to homeless people without first acquiring permits. The Rev. Ray Redlich and Chris Ohnimus, represented in the suit by the Freedom Center of Missouri, were told they violated city health code and were given court summonses, according to the suit. The two men regularly share food, clothes and religious pamphlets to people experiencing homelessness in St. Louis.
The City of St. Louis had dropped the citations against Redlich and Ohnimus by their court date in December. But Dave Roland, director of litigation for the nonprofit and attorney for both men, said that St. Louis and cities with similar laws use fines and court summonses for “bullying” people who feed the homeless.
“They know that the ordinary folks wouldn’t have the emotional or financial resources to fight back. So by throwing citations at them and hauling them into court, they think they can just make these people stop pursuing their constitutional rights,” he said.
The suit does not debate the constitutionality of the health code itself, which requires anyone sharing food with the homeless to obtain permits and follow food-service regulations. Instead, the suit argues that it’s unconstitutional to apply the regulations to people who are feeding others for religious reasons, instead of for profit.
Redlich and Ohnimus each believe that it is their “obligation as a follower of Jesus Christ to feed the hungry,” according to the suit. For that reason, Roland argues that St. Louis’ regulations infringe upon their constitutional right to practice their religion.
City Counselor Julian Bush said that the city expects to win the case.
"If these sandwiches had poisoned those who consumed them, there would have been an outcry that there was insufficient regulation; if not, there is a protest of over-regulation," he wrote in a statement.
The counselor’s statement noted that “nothing in the constitution” instructs elected officials on how to draw the line between over- and under-regulation.
The Freedom Center of Missouri filed the suit in the U.S. District Court; any legal decision made about the current case would just affect St. Louis law.
Roland said his primary goal is to help Redlich and Ohnimus continue their Christian outreach to homeless communities. But he said the suit might lead to policy changes in other cities.
“If you see somebody in need, you try to help them out. That is the most pro-social thing that I can think of, and it’s galling to think that the government would try to prevent people from helping each other in that way,” said Roland.
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