Four Years Later, Judge Rules That Ministries' Case Over Homeless Food Distribution is a Go

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Four long years ago we wrote about two local ministries -- Big Hart Ministries and the Rip Parker Memorial Homeless Ministry-- that filed suit against the city of Dallas in federal court over an ordinance that they say kept them from serving food to the homeless and violated their religious freedoms. For the longest time, not much happened in that litigation. For the most part, I was told this afternoon, that was because the court wanted to see what happened while the city revised its food-distribution ordinances, in large part a reaction to the growing food-truck movement. (Which, so happens, is still taking place, with the council deferring Monday that vote on further loosening restrictions.)

But the Houston Chronicle, via Religious Clause, provides the heads-up: Last week, U.S. District Judge Jorge Solis denied the city's motion for summary judgment and ruled that the lawsuit can proceed. Because, see, for all the changes to City Code in recent months, ordinances still demand that those serving food give the city the heads-up as to when and where they'll be doing the dishing out. And as far as Big Hart (also known as Big Heart) and Rip Parker are concerned, that's a violation of "their ability to practice their religious beliefs that call for spontaneous sharing of food and for seeking out the hungry in hard to reach locations," per Religious Clause's concise summation of the case.

This is how Solis sums it up in his ruling signed November 4:

The City contends that while Plaintiffs' religious beliefs may compel them to share food with the homeless, Plaintiffs have not demonstrated that their religious beliefs compel them to share food with the homeless in a manner that violates the Ordinance. The City contends in a conclusory fashion that the Ordinance's location restrictions and the Ordinance's requirements for sanitary facilities and safe food handling "do not interfere with or burden their sharing meals with homeless people . . ." The City goes on to argue that even if the Ordinance does impose a burden, that burden is not substantial because Plaintiffs have "always substantially complied with the food safety requirements of the Ordinance."

Plaintiffs respond that the location requirement substantially burdens their religious expression because it severely restricts their ability to share food in accordance with their religious beliefs. Plaintiffs' food sharing practices require them to seek out homeless people in the communities' streets and feed them. According to the testimony of Mr. Don Hart and Mr. William Edwards, founder/pastor with Big Hart Ministries Association and founder/director/coordinator of Rip Parker, respectively, their religious calling requires them and their organizations to go out into the streets to feed and minister to the homeless.

Now, it would appear, the case will finally head to trial.

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