Free to Feed

Helping the homeless


A pair of religious groups in Dallas won a legal victory in March against city regulations that interfered with their ability to feed the homeless. U.S. District Judge Jorge Solis ruled that the city's Food Establishment Ordinance violates a Texas law protecting religious freedom. 

The ordinance requires programs aimed at feeding the homeless to meet a long list of demands, including restrooms, washing facilities, city approval of locations, and supervision by someone who has completed a food safety training course. One of the plaintiffs, Big Heart Ministry, reports that at one point 13 police cars and a police van showed up to a public plaza to close down Big Heart's operation for violating the law. Don Hart, who has been feeding the homeless for 30 years, says he spent "hundreds of thousands" trying to comply with the city's demands.

Under the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, any legal burden on the practice of religion must be "the least restrictive means" of serving a "compelling government interest." Judge Solis decided the Dallas ordinance did not meet that standard. The plaintiffs were sincere in believing Christianity required them to aid the homeless where the homeless are, Solis concluded, and striving to meet the city's demands burdened them significantly. He said the city failed to prove that unregulated feeding of the homeless posed a threat grave enough to justify that burden.

Since Solis relied on state law, he did not need to address constitutional issues raised by the plaintiffs. Given the nature of the statute, the ruling applies only to people who feed the homeless for religious reasons.