Judge files memorandum outlining reasons behind granting injunction in Philly's outdoor homeless feeding ban case

By Jon Campisi | Aug 14, 2012

The federal judge overseeing the case involving Philadelphia’s controversial outdoor

homeless feeing ban docketed an order Thursday laying out his reasons for granting a preliminary injunction barring the city from enforcing the ban.

U.S. District Judge William Yohn, sitting in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, granted the request to prohibit city officials from enforcing their recently enacted policy in a findings of fact and conclusions of law memo that was filed at the federal court in Philadelphia Aug. 9.

Chosen 300 Ministries and other religious organizations had filed suit against the city and Mayor Michael Nutter contending their religious freedoms were infringed upon after the city banned public feedings for the homeless in the city’s expansive park system.

The ban did not come in the form of a city council ordinance, but rather it was done as a Parks Department regulation.

The lawsuit, which sought injunctive relief, was filed in June by attorneys with Pennsylvania’s ACLU office and the firm Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg.

During a hearing at the federal courthouse early last month, Yohn granted the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction that would temporarily prevent the city from enforcing its policy.

However, the jurist said he would only temporarily enjoin the ban until he conducted further research and filed his formal findings of fact and conclusions of law.

In that memorandum, which came out to be more than 50 pages long, Yohn wrote that there is no evidence that the ban would advance the governmental interest in ending homelessness or in facilitating the attendance of the homeless at indoor food-sharing programs.

Yohn also determined that the ban does not advance the governmental interest in providing social services for the homeless since those services could be provided along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway – a popular feeding spot prior to the ban – and that there is no evidence that those services are being provided at the outdoor City Hall apron, which was the alternative plan proposed by city officials under their prior plan.

“Defendants have failed to show by a preponderance of the evidence that the ban is the least restrictive means of furthering their objectives of ending homelessness, feeding the homeless indoors, providing social services to the homeless, increasing the dignity of the homeless, or reducing the trash burden along the Parkway,” the memorandum states. “Therefore, plaintiffs have a shown a reasonable likelihood of success on the merits of the PRFPA claim.”

The PRFPA stands for the Pennsylvania Religious Freedom Protection Act.

Yohn wrote that the PRFPA “prohibits a municipal agency from substantially burdening a person’s free exercise of religion except where the agency proves that the burden is both in furtherance of a compelling interest of the agency and the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling interest.”

In the case before him, Yohn determined that banning the groups from sharing food with the homeless in 63 municipal parks that cover 9,200 acres of land under the Fairmount Park system is indeed a burden under the PRFPA because it “significantly constrains or inhibits conduct or expression mandated by plaintiffs’ sincerely held religious beliefs.”

“Likewise,” Yohn continued, “the ban denies plaintiffs a reasonable opportunity to engage in activities that are fundamental to plaintiffs’ religion.”

While Yohn ruled in favor of the plaintiffs where the feeding ban is concerned, he denied a separate request by the plaintiffs for a preliminary injunction with respect to the regulations of the city’s Board of Health concerning food safety relating to outdoor public serving of food.

Those health regulations have to do with food-safety training, permitting and inspection processes for group serving food in public spaces.

In his 56-page memorandum, Yohn went on to write that while the case has drawn national attention, his hope is that local officials and the plaintiffs will work to move toward their common goal of ending homelessness and hunger in the City of Philadelphia.

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