by Travis Weber, J.D., LL.M.
December 12, 2014
Think Progress reported yesterday on a decision by the city of Dallas to revise regulations on feeding the homeless. These revisions, which made it easier to feed and care for those living on Dallas streets, were motivated by a federal court ruling last year in favor of several religious ministries desiring to take food to the homeless and feed and care for them wherever they are found.
Years ago, Dallas had cracked down on feeding the homeless and placed restrictions on how it could be done, and several Dallas area ministries and individuals who were impacted by these changes sued. The Think Progress report discusses these events:
“After Big Hart Ministries Association and Rip Parker Memorial Homeless Ministry sued the city, six years passed before a judge ruled that the law violated the charities’ religious liberties under a Texas statute. Wednesday’s City Council vote carries the judge’s logic further, softening the rules charities face and effectively ending Dallas’ effort to clamp down on on-the-street feeding programs for the indigent regardless of religious affiliation.” (emphasis added)
Big Hart Ministries Association, Rip Parker Memorial Homeless Ministry, and William Edwards had sued under the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”). The Texas RFRA states that (1) sincere religious practices (2) cannot be substantially burdened by the government unless the government (3) has a compelling interest which it is (4) advancing by the least restrictive means possible. In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs had alleged that – in violation of the Texas RFRA – they had a sincere belief that their religion requires them to care for the homeless, and that the city was substantially burdening that belief by making it impossible to carry out with heavy regulations on feeding the homeless. Early in 2013, a federal judge ruled that the plaintiffs religious beliefs were indeed substantially burdened, and the city did not have a compelling interest in its regulations – thus, they violated the Texas RFRA. Finally, this past week, in response to this ruling, the Dallas City Council approved changes to regulations on feeding the homeless.
Think Progress does not refer to the Texas RFRA by name – but that’s the law which has benefitted the homeless in this situation. This is exactly what RFRAs – whether in Texas or elsewhere – are meant to accomplish: protect the exercise of sincere religious faith, in recognition of the valuable role it plays in society and benefits it brings to people around us. Furthermore, and contrary to many popular claims, RFRAs do protect religious exercise “regardless of religious affiliation.” A quick search of how the laws have been used in court will reveal that they have protected religious exercise for a variety of faiths.
It would be nice (and intellectually consistent) for Think Progress to extend this logic to other situations implicating RFRA. Indeed, the beauty of law is that it is blind to political preferences. This is why having RFRAs passed into law is so important to protecting religious freedom today. When religious freedom is diminished and made part of a political game, everyone suffers.
At Family Research Council, we fully support RFRA and what it stands for – protecting the exercise of faith for all in the face of often overreaching and too powerful governments.