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Dallas Homeless Rules Infringe on Charities

DALLAS (CN) - A federal judge found that Dallas violates the rights of religious charities by regulating how they feed the city's homeless population.

Under the Food Establishment Ordinance, groups that feed the homeless in Dallas must provide restrooms and hand-washing facilities, have wastewater-disposal systems, and obtain permission for their landlords before operating, among other rules.

Big Hart Ministries Association, Rip Parker Memorial Homeless Ministry and Rip Parker founder Williams Edwards sued the city in 2007, claiming that their volunteers faced harassment by city officials over noncompliance with the ordinance. Their feeding sites and religious services allegedly met with several tickets.

U.S. District Judge Jorge Solis permanently enjoined Dallas on March 25 from enforcing the law under the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

In a 39-page summary of his findings, Solis noted that the ruling does not represent "a judgment about whether the city has an interest in regulating the operations of homeless feeders."

"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," she wrote. "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."

Dallas did establish that it wants to feed and help as many homeless people as possible in an effort to get them off the streets, according to the opinion.

"The city believes that organizations that feed the homeless on the streets are thwarting the city's efforts to get the homeless off the streets," Solis wrote. "The city has not established that its interest in regulating plaintiffs in this way justified the substantial burden on plaintiffs' free exercise - in other words, it has not established the balance weighs in its factor."

Tommy McIntyre, a Rip Parker volunteer, testified that after the ordinance was passed, it became very difficult for the volunteers to feed the homeless at multiple locations. Police also allegedly warned him about code violations.

Edwards, the group's founder, testified that police would come to feeding sites and "try to pick a fight" with the volunteers.

"And then as soon as he got some sort of response, three or four more cars would come up and they would chase us out," according to Edwards' testimony, as quoted in the opinion.

Edwards testified Rip Parker had lost volunteers in recent years because "people are fearful of seeing - because whenever we go to feed, the code-enforcement people show up and they - you know, in a city car, and they come talk to me and want to see all my paperwork. ... [The volunteers] are concerned Solis rejected the city's argument that Big Hart's claims are moot because it went out of business trying to comply with the ordinance."

Solis also noted the trial testimony of Big Hart Ministries founder Edwin Hart and his daughter, saying their passion about the mission is evident.

It represents a significant burden to make charities provide restrooms at each feeding location, and this requirement forces them to significantly modify their religious behavior, according to the ruling.

"The religious behavior at issue is not simply feeding the homeless - the evidence established the religious conduct at issue is feeding the homeless where they are; either by setting up a single feeding location that is convenient to the homeless (Big Hart) or by driving to different areas of Dallas when the homeless are located at any given time (Rip Parker)," Solis wrote.

Though the ordinance does not prohibit plaintiffs from giving money to the homeless for food, plaintiffs choose to minister to and feed the needy in a personal way, pursuant to their religious beliefs."

Big Heart Ministries has been ministering and feeding the homeless since 1980.

Before the ordinance was passed, it primarily fed the homeless at a location on Corsicana Street each week with 40 volunteers.

"These days and times are harder now, and challenges are great," Big Hart said on its website. "We believe churches and individuals alike have the right to preach the gospel and we adhere to God's Word when He tells us, 'Go into all the world'. No one should be bound by an address or a particular location when bringing the gospel to those lost." (1st link) Hart testified that he took food safety seriously, that he made sure several of his volunteers had completed the city's food safety course and were educated in food handling and storage. (top, page 3) The charity purchased its own groceries and prepared the hot meals on-site.

Edwards founded Rip Parker approximately 20 years ago. The charity and its volunteers feed the homeless every night of the week and twice on Saturdays.

More than 400 church groups and 10,000 volunteers each year prepare the food in their homes and churches or purchase prepared food from stores and restaurants, according to court records.

Solis concluded the requirements for handwashing facilities, wastewater disposal systems and landowner consent are also too burdensome.

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