(CN) – Orlando can regulate how charity groups and churches feed the homeless in downtown city parks, the 11th Circuit ruled, rejecting a constitutional challenge to a permit requirement for “large group feedings.”
First Vagabonds Church of God and a political activist group called Orlando Food Not Bombs (OFNB) regularly offer meals to the homeless in city parks. First Vagabonds’ congregation consists of mostly homeless people, while members of OFNB believe society has a responsibility to feed all people.
They took issue with a city ordinance aimed at curtailing complaints about large numbers of homeless people dispersing into neighborhoods after receiving food at city parks.
The ordinance requires anyone hosting a “large group feeding” in the downtown district to first get a permit. Each individual or group is limited to two permits annually per district park.
First Vagabonds and OFNB claimed the ordinance violates the First Amendment and the Florida Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
A federal judge ruled for the church on its free exercise claim and for the OFNB on its free speech claim and permanently blocked the city from enforcing the ordinance.
The federal appeals court in Atlanta lifted this injunction, saying the feeding ordinance “regulates no protected expressive conduct.”
“[J]ust feeding people in the park is conduct too ambiguous to allow us to conclude that a great likelihood exists that an objective reasonable observer would understand that the feeders are trying to convey a message,” Judge James Edmondson wrote for the three-judge panel.
Nor does the ordinance violate the free exercise clause of the First Amendment, the panel ruled, because the city has a legitimate interest in “lessening the burden on the city’s parks.”
“[I]t is far from irrational for the city to conclude that an overall reduction in the wear and tear of its park resources will result from rotating the park’s frequent large users among all available parks in the district,” Edmondson wrote.
The 11th Circuit also upheld the lower court’s ruling that the ordinance is not unconstitutionally vague and does not violate the equal protection clause because it exempts city vendors or contractors.
Edmondson added that the ordinance “does not forbid the church and its members from engaging in their religious exercise,” because they can rotate their services at the downtown parks or congregate at parks outside the downtown district.