Federal Judge: City may limit Good Samaritans’ ability to feed the homeless

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Commentary, Constitutional Structure, Free Speech, Limited Government, Press Releases, Religious Liberty

A federal judge in St. Louis has ruled that St. Louis may punish Good Samaritans for providing meals to the homeless unless those Good Samaritans first comply with the same costly and burdensome regulations that govern restaurants and grocery stores.

The plaintiffs, Pastor Ray Redlich and his colleague, Chris Ohnimus, regularly seek out hungry neighbors on the streets of St. Louis, obeying their Christian faith’s command to provide food to those in need. As Ray and Chris told the court, they try to provide a balance of nutrition in the meals they provide, in part to bolster their message (drawn from Matthew 7:9-11) about the way in which God wishes to meet our needs abundantly, not just by giving the bare minimum. Local churches frequently provide sandwiches that have been prepared in facilities certified by local health authorities, and Ray and Chris distribute them along with water and sometimes donated pieces of fruit (when available), bags of chips, or granola bars. Their goal is not just to give their neighbors a snack or some junk food, but to provide a filling, nutritionally-balanced meal.

Although the City’s ordinances do not restrict Good Samaritans’ ability to provide whole fruit or commercially pre-packaged snacks, these items, taken by themselves, are not nutritionally balanced and they also tend to be very expensive compared to the sandwiches. If Ray and Chris are not allowed to provide the sandwiches donated to them, both the nutritional quality and quantity of food they offer will be severely limited as will their ability to convey the message they intend.

But before they can share these sandwiches with the homeless, the City of St. Louis requires them to obtain a permit. Getting the necessary permit requires a Good Samaritan first to:

(1) register with the State of Missouri for a sales tax number;

(2) obtain a passport photo;

(3) obtain statements from City and state officials affirming that they are not delinquent in the payment of any taxes;

(4) pay $200 to obtain a Vendor’s license from the City;

(5) obtain a permit from the Street Department;

(6) two days before helping the homeless, go in person to the St. Louis Health Department and submit a written application for a Temporary Food Service permit;

(7) designate the specific time and location where the food will be distributed;

(8) provide a letter of permission, “the design of the mobile unit and the food establishment or grocery store,” and the most recent inspection report from the food establishment or grocery store that will operate as a vehicular servicing area;

(9) provide a “proposed menu”; and

(10) submit to a Health Department inspection.

After the City has issued a permit, those distributing food are required to have on-site a portable hand-washing station, three food-grade washtubs (one with dishwashing detergent, one with clean rinse water, and one with an approved sanitizer solution), a five-gallon or larger container of potable water, a waste receptacle, hair coverings, and “overhead cover” such as a tent or canopy where the food will be distributed. The City also recently added a requirement for Good Samaritans to participate in a “Temporary Food Safety Training Program,” but it has not explained what such a program might entail, when or where such a program will be offered, how much it will cost, or how long it will take an applicant to complete.

“When I share food with my homeless neighbors I want to help them when and where I find them,” Redlich explained. “In addition to the prohibitive expense of complying with these permit requirements and regulations, following them would prevent me from taking immediate action to provide for people in need when I encounter them on the streets. That is a severe burden on my religious practice and on my ability to communicate my message about the way in which God calls for us to help each other.”

In assessing a constitutional challenge like this, where regulations burden the exercise of constitutional freedoms, courts are supposed to evaluate whether the burden imposed by a set of regulations is justified by whatever benefit the government expects to result from its enforcing those regulations. In this case the plaintiffs offered evidence to show that requiring them to comply with the regulations was not likely to reduce the number of foodborne illnesses at all, not only because there was scant evidence that the food Good Samaritans provide is any more likely to cause illness than food obtained directly from a restaurant, but also because preventing Good Samaritans from providing food would just make it more likely that the homeless would obtain food from unsafe sources.

The City disagreed with the facts the plaintiffs were asserting, so the case should have gone to trial for the court to settle the factual dispute. But the judge made two big missteps. First, she simply accepted the City’s version of the facts despite the clear disagreement. Second, she failed to address why, in light of the fact that Redlich and Ohnimus usually get their sandwiches from facilities that have obtained government permits, they should be required to jump through the regulatory hoops listed above before giving those sandwiches to people in need.

“The simple fact is that most Good Samaritans have limited resources,” said Dave Roland, the Freedom Center’s director of litigation. “The more time and money they have to spend on complying with government regulations, the less time and money they have available to provide help to those who need it. Here, the court simply – and incorrectly – assumed that the plaintiffs’ ability to engage in their expressive religious conduct would not be significantly limited if they have to pay thousands of dollars in permit fees, complete the training program, and carry around the equipment the city mandates.”

The Freedom Center will continue to advance Redlich’s and Ohnimus’s constitutional claims, either be asking the trial court to reconsider its opinion or by taking their case to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.