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Texas Federal Court Finds Mobile Homeless Ministry Victim of TRFRA Violation

A federal court in Texas has determined that a local ordinance that restricted when and where a number of religious organizations could temporarily serve meals to homeless persons as part of the organizations’ ministry violated the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“TRFRA”).

In an opinion dated March 25 and publicized last week, Judge Jorge A. Solis of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas held that the City of Dallas put a substantial burden on the religious exercise of the plaintiffs, Big Hart Ministries, Rip Parker Memorial Homeless Ministry, and William Edwards. The court held a four-day bench trial last summer before rendering its verdict.

For years before the ordinance in question was enacted, Big Hart Ministries established its church not inside a traditional structure but on local streets where parishioners could provide meals and religious guidance to the homeless. Each week, members of Big Hart Ministries would buy groceries and cook meals in a kitchen truck, where the meals were prepared. The ministry set up tents, generators and stoves on the street with the assistance of about 40 volunteers. The meal was followed by a worship service, and additional personal counseling was offered. Rip Parker Ministry performed similar service, with volunteers seeking areas where homeless persons have gathered and providing them meals.

In 2005, the City of Dallas enacted the Food Establishment Ordinance “to safeguard public health and provide to consumers food that is safe, unaltered, and honestly presented.” The ordinance provided a “Homeless Feeder Defense,” which held that organizations like Big Hart Ministries and Parker did not have to comply with the food ordinance if it met nine criteria, including providing restrooms, get location approval from the city, and provide hand-washing equipment, among other requirements.

Big Hart and Rip Parker tried to comply with the requirements, but the costs were too much. Additionally, Rip Parker lost nearly all of its volunteers, who were being harassed by city code enforcement officials. On one occasion, 13 police cars with officers showed up to a call that Big Hart was in violation of the Food Establishment Ordinance.

The organizations sued, alleging constitutional violations as well as violation of TRFRA, which closely tracks the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”). RFRA was the predecessor to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), which protects religious exercise from substantial burdens and ensures religious exercise is treated on equal terms in land use matters.

The court held that the ordinance put a substantial burden on the religious exercise of the plaintiffs without being narrowly tailored to serve a compelling governmental interest. First, the requirement that the ministries provide restrooms put a substantial burden on the plaintiffs due to the overwhelming cost. “Mr. Hart testified Big Hart does not have the financial means to purchase, store, transport, or rent such facilities at every feeding site. Thus, complying with this provision places a substantial burden on Big Hart’s ability to share food with the homeless in accordance with its religious mission.”

The court found a similar substantial burden due to the requirement that the ministries provide handwashing stations and disposal of wastewater at each location they serve meals, the requirement that the ministries receive permission from the property owner at every location, and the location and registration requirements.

The City of Dallas could not show that its ordinance was the least restrictive way of fulfilling a compelling government interest. “The first compelling interest the City cites for the Ordinance…is protecting the health, safety, and welfare of its citizens. These are exactly the kind of broadly formulated interests that courts routinely reject in these cases.” Similarly, the city’s purported interest to prevent foodborne illnesses was not supported by any evidence that the plaintiffs’ operations have created such problems. The court reached a similar conclusion on the city’s alleged interests in protecting the homeless and property rights and preventing trespassing.

“[I]n 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. Therefore, the Court finds that…the Homeless Feeder Defense violates the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”

The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich have extensive experience in state and federal courts throughout the U.S advancing the interests of houses of worship and their related religious activities under RLUIPA and other land use matters. If you believe your house of worship or members have been improperly deprived of their constitutional rights or a lawful use of property, please contact us.

To read the full opinion, click here.

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