ORANGE, Calif. –The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California has filed suit in U.S. District Court against the California Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) to protect the free-speech and religion rights of those who feed the poor.
The suit seeks to overturn an unconstitutionally broad state law that allowed park rangers to interfere with an open-air feeding at Doheny State Park in early February organized by Welcome INN (Interfaith Needs Network), an interfaith religious group.
“Our work is motivated by the belief that acts of charity toward the poor and homeless are an essential part of religious worship,” said James Siler, president and founding member of Welcome INN. “I personally believe that the Holy Spirit flows through me as I am feeding someone.”
Welcome INN volunteers gathered at the park at 4:30 p.m. on February 5 and 6 to serve donated food to about 20 homeless people in the park’s picnic area. Before the 45-minute meal, they conducted a prayer, and throughout, they distributed Bibles, counseled the guests, and referred those who requested them to area social services.
But on February 7, as members unloaded supplies, a uniformed park ranger approached them and told them they were engaging in an unlawful assembly and violating section 4321 of the California State Administrative Code. If they did not leave immediately, he said, he would start writing citations.
‘I believe very deeply in the work of Welcome INN, but I do not want to risk being cited or arrested,’ said Patricia Church, who was in charge of the meal giveaway . ‘I especially don’t want to risk this for our guests.’
The volunteers complied with rangers’ orders, but in the days that followed, they appealed to Richard Haydon, acting superintendent of the park, who told them nothing they could say would change DPR’s stance. The group members have not returned since.
‘I know that I will risk citation and arrest if I go out with Welcome INN to Doheny,’ Church said. ‘Without a court order, I won’t go there again.’
State authorities violated the First Amendment rights of Welcome INN members to freedom of speech and religion, because the members’ actions – including feeding the poor – are a form of expression and an essential part of worship. Preventing them from ministering to the poor, then, keeps them from worshipping as they see fit, said Hector Villagra, director of the Orange County office of the ACLU/SC.
According to the complaint, section 4321 is an unlawful prior restraint on free speech because it allows state officials to deny the use of a public forum in advance of whatever speech might take place, and it does not give them narrow, objective and definite standards to guide their regulation of the use of public spaces.
‘When I led our group to Doheny State Park in February, I felt this was a place where we would be away from residents and business people who might complain,’ Siler said. ‘We are not disturbing the peace. We are not inciting a riot. We are simply feeding our friends in the same manner that most of us have done for years; this is not much different than when families or others gather in the park.’
Park rangers have apparently not cited anyone else eating at Doheny State Park who did not conduct a religious service or engage in other types of expression, which makes the violations of Welcome INN members’ free speech, free assembly and freedom of religion rights even more blatant.
‘This case, involving some of our most cherished rights, underscores just how fragile they are,’ Villagra said. ‘Because of the ACLU’s work to prevent government-sponsored religion, it is often assumed that the ACLU does not zealously defend the right of religious groups, including Christians, to practice their religion. This case shows that assumption is just plain wrong.’