Texas Judge Rules: Feeding the Homeless in Public Not a Crime

Guests of Big Heart Ministries’ annual Christmas meal dug into hot food on a cold afternoon outside a church on Second Avenue near Fair Park in December 2011. (Rex C. Curry/Special contributor)

For six years the city of Dallas and two ministries have been locked in a legal battle over their right to feed the homeless and hungry wherever and whenever they find them. But at long last, U.S. District Judge Jorge Solis ended that tussle today — for now, at least — by siding with Rip Parker Memorial Homeless Ministry and Big Heart Ministries.

In the final judgment you’ll find below, Solis calls the city’s Food Ordinance a violation of the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act. And, the judge writes, “The City of Dallas is permanently enjoined from enforcing Ordinance 26023 against plaintiffs,” who have also been awarded attorneys fees and costs.

It was Solis who, in 2011, denied the city’s attempts to get the case thrown out in the first place.

The judge’s ruling comes nine months after the city attorneys and Scott Barnard, who represented the ministries, squared off in his courtroom over the ordinance, which the ministries claimed violated their biblical duty to feed and comfort the hungry while spreading the gospel. The city, on the other hand, contended that by feeding the homeless, the ministries were enabling them to remain on the streets.

Solis, though, didn’t agree with the city’s argument.

“The Court does not make a judgment about whether the City has an interest in regulating the operations of homeless feeders,” he writes in his 39-page findings of fact and conclusions of law that also follows below. “However, in this case, the homeless feeders are religiously motivated institutions that are afforded statutory protection to practice their religions without being substantially burdened by government regulation. The Ordinance’s Homeless Feeder Defense requirements were instituted based on speculation and assumptions. The City did not establish that any of its interests have been harmed by Plaintiffs’ conduct.

“What the City did establish is that it wants to provide as many homeless people as possible with food, social services, showers, safety, job counseling, and beds in an effort to get them off the streets. The City believes that organizations that that feed the homeless on the street are thwarting the City’s efforts to get the homeless off the streets. The City has not established that its interest in regulating Plaintiffs in this way justifies the substantial burden on Plaintiffs’ free exercise — in other words, it has not established the balance weighs in its favor.”

Barnard says the judge’s ruling is “particularly moving coming as it does on the eve of Good Friday and Easter.” And he says his clients are “excited about getting back to sharing food with the homeless.”

The ministries never stopped during the course of the litigation, but did curtain their activities — in part, says attorney Lizzy Scott, because Dallas police kept cracking down on their efforts to feed the homeless.

“As recently as last Sunday one of our clients was out sharing food with the homeless near downtown, and he was told he wasn’t allowed to do it in the Central Business District,” she says. “Now he’s very excited to get back to the ministry.”

The city has no response save for these few words: “The City Attorney’s Office is studying the decision and evaluating the city’s options.” It has 30 days to appeal the judge’s ruling or file for a new trial.

As Barnard notes, Solis threw in attorneys’ fees, even though he, Scott and Andrew Newman at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld took the case pro bono. They say the money will go to charity.

Says Barnard, the ruling means “relief organizations throughout the city can continue to provide critical services to its most vulnerable residents.”