This past Saturday, a group of volunteers from Love Wins Ministries – a Christian ministry dedicated to helping the homeless in Raleigh, North Carolina – gathered at Moore Square, a downtown park, to hand out free biscuits and coffee. They were grateful for the opportunity to share the love of Christ. They were also grateful they didn't get arrested for it.
Without the requisite permit, anyone caught feeding the homeless in a public park in Raleigh is subject to criminal arrest for violating city ordinance.
Because a permit would cost an astounding $1,600 per weekend, Love Wins has historically avoided the park itself and set up station on a sidewalk adjoining Moore Square to distribute food. This strategy worked for six years. Almost every Saturday and Sunday, Love Wins supplied hot breakfast to thankful individuals on that sidewalk.
And they were undoubtedly meeting a need. The soup kitchens in the city and county are not open on weekends, leaving Love Wins and other compassionate Christians to fill the gap for the homeless.
But the gig was up on Saturday before last, when Raleigh police officers awaited the arrival of volunteers and threatened them with arrest – for passing out food.
The threat placed Love Wins and their volunteers in an impossible dilemma. To these Christians, feeding the hungry is not token charity: it is a means for exercising and expressing their faith. Hey could either jettison their beliefs or face arrest.
Due to the national attention surrounding this incident, the Mayor and members of City Council were forced to field numerous phone calls and emails about it. In way of response, they decided to put a "moratorium" on enforcing the ordinance.
A repeal of the ordinance would have been more appropriate.
What do the city leaders have to mull over? Is there a constitutional way for them to keep Christians from aiding the homeless?
This law directly impacts the Christian's ability to be Christian. Passages like Matthew 25 make clear that serving the needy is part of the faith.
When the city of Philadelphia criminalized the act of feeding people outdoors, Christians there were unwilling to abandon the hungry. They took legal action and justice prevailed. Federal Judge William H. Yohn Jr. overturned the ordinance. It hardly needs to be said that plaintiffs' food-sharing programs benefit the public interest," Yohn wrote. "Despite [the city's] considerable efforts, many Philadelphians remain homeless and hungry... There is a strong public interest in protecting the free exercise of religion."
Hopefully, Raleigh will soon come to its senses and avoid a similar lawsuit. Though there might be some political benefit in chasing away undesirables from public spaces, the government cannot rightly interfere with Christian service. The First Amendment does not tolerate this form of oppression.
The Book of James tells us that faith without works is dead; so is any law that tries to effectuate the same result. Love not only wins generally but it should also win in court.