WASHINGTON, D.C. - March 29, 2013 – (RealEstateRama) — A federal court has ruled that the City of Dallas may not enforce a law that prevents religious organizations from providing food to homeless persons living outdoors.
The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (Law Center), with attorneys from Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP providing pro bono counsel, represents two religious organizations and one volunteer in their challenge to the city ordinance. Prior to the 2005 passage of the ordinance, these organizations, Big Heart Ministries and the Rip Parker Memorial Homeless Ministries, and volunteer Will Edwards, routinely shared food with homeless persons in public places in Dallas. The ordinance placed burdensome and costly restrictions on food-sharing and severely limited their ability to share food with the Citys homeless population, an integral part of their ministries.
In reaching its decision that the Dallas ordinance violated the organizations rights under the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the court determined that the ordinance placed substantial burdens on the organizations religious exercise and that the City failed to provide specific evidence to support its claims that the ordinance was necessary to promote health and safety.
”We are very pleased with the ruling by the court,” stated Scott Barnard, a partner in Akin Gumps litigation practice in Dallas who led the team in the case. ”This will allow religious organizations across the city to continue providing this critical service to its most vulnerable residents.”
The Dallas ordinance is part of a nationwide trend of cities enacting measures criminalizing homelessness and, more recently, targeting those seeking to provide food or shelter. Prior to the ordinance taking effect, an estimated 200 organizations served food to homeless people in Dallas. The organizations argue that their service is vital because the city has many unsheltered homeless people who may not seek help at shelters due mental illnesses or other logistical issues. The city has an estimated 10,000 homeless residents.
“This decision is a victory for homeless advocates and individuals,” said Heather Maria Johnson, Civil Rights Attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. “At a time when more emergency food needs are going unmet, cities should be facilitating the efforts of charitable organizations to meet these needs, not infringing their rights to provide food as part of their religious mission. We are pleased that the Court has vindicated these important rights.”
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