PHILADELPHIA - The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and the law firm of Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg, LLP filed a federal lawsuit today against the city of Philadelphia and Mayor Michael Nutter on behalf of a group of churches and religious leaders who wish to continue their ministries of feeding the homeless in the city's public parks. The city recently implemented new regulations that would force these groups to end their practice of sharing food outdoors with those in need. The lawsuit alleges these changes were made not to protect the health of the homeless but instead to protect the city's image in a tourist area.
"These regulations are directed at the homeless, and no one else, said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. "The city clearly values its public image over our clients' constitutional right to practice their religion and the needs of the homeless."
For over a decade, the plaintiffs, which include the Chosen 300 Ministries, the Welcome Church, the King's Jubilee, and Philly Restart, have operated food-sharing programs for the homeless in the parks along Benjamin Franklin Parkway without incident. They believe that this mission is an essential part of their religious worship. They have chosen to hold their programs along Benjamin Franklin Parkway because of the high numbers of homeless who frequent the area.
"The plaintiffs, as a religious mission, provide critical services and shed much needed light on a problem that government has failed to adequately address," said Paul Messing of Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg, LLP and lead counsel for the plaintiffs. "The First Amendment and Pennsylvania law prohibit interference with the exercise of religious freedom. We look to our courts to stop the city from banning the constitutionally protected work of these groups."
In March Mayor Nutter announced that the city of Philadelphia was taking action to remove food distribution programs from all city parks. A week later, the city's Department of Health issued new regulations that imposed burdensome restrictions on outdoor feeding programs - despite the fact that there have never been any reports of illnesses caused by these programs.
According to the lawsuit, Mayor Nutter was motivated by the desire to remove the homeless from view of Philadelphia tourist attractions, and timed the regulation to coincide with the opening of the new Barnes museum on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The regulations make an exception for picnics, permitted events, lunch trucks, and office lunches.
The lawsuit alleges that the city of Philadelphia violated the free exercise of religion clause and the free speech clause of the First Amendment as well as Pennsylvania's Religious Freedom Protection Act.
The lawsuit is Chosen Ministries, et al. v. City of Philadelphia. Attorneys for the religious groups include Messing of the law firm Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg, LLP, Mary Catherine Roper of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, and Seth Kreimer of the University of Pennsylvania School of Law.