California Christian non-profit punished for feeding homeless

Feeding homeless

The US Department of Justice (DOJ) has backed a Christian non-profit in its legal battle with the city of Santa Ana, California, after it was penalised and threatened with criminal prosecution for feeding homeless people.

Micah’s Way, which has been operating since 2005, filed a lawsuit against Santa Ana, claiming that the city had violated the non-profit’s right to religious exercise when it ordered it to stop distributing food and drink at its resource centre.

Micah’s Way’s certificate of occupancy had been denied by Santa Ana. The city had also warned that it could fine and prosecute the organisation for allegedly violating the municipal code.

The Justice Department filed a statement of interest supporting Micah’s Way, stating that the Christian organisation’s distribution of food to homeless people “is an integral part of its religious exercise.”

The city maintained that the food distribution did not qualify as a religious activity, stating that it was merely an incidental use of minor significance. Santa Ana city also argued that preventing the organisation from distributing food and beverages did not violate federal law.

The city also said that Micah’s Way had improperly used its administrative building to hand out food, resulting in multiple complaints from residents in the surrounding neighbourhood.

In response, the Justice Department said Santa Ana’s denial of the occupancy licence for Micah’s Way’s resource centre placed a “substantial burden” on the organisation’s religious expression in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalised Persons Act.

The act bars governments from imposing land-use rules interfering with religious exercise.

The department also said that Micah’s Way believed it had a “religious duty” to feed homeless individuals who come to its doors.

Application denied a second time

“Many faith-based organisations across the country are on the front lines serving the needs of people experiencing homelessness,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

“The Justice Department is committed to enforcing federal civil rights laws to ensure that all religious groups can freely exercise their religious beliefs.”

Santa Ana warned Micah’s Way in 2021 that providing food and beverages out of its resource centre violated the municipal code.

After the city issued an administrative citation and told it to obtain a certificate of occupancy, the organisation applied for it but was denied based on zoning restrictions.

Micah’s Way applied for the certificate a second time. However, it was again denied on the grounds that its food distribution practices were not permitted in the “professional district” that the resource centre occupied.

Santa Ana officials said the city “fully supports the expression of religious beliefs as well as helping those in need, as shown by the operation of our 200-bed homeless navigation centre, hosting the County of Orange’s homeless shelter, and funding homeless outreach teams.”

Micah’s Way believes that Santa Ana has placed a substantial burden on its religious exercise and hopes to win the case with the support of the Justice Department.

The motion to dismiss the case is set to be heard on 5th June.


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