An Orange County ministry group that feeds the region’s homeless picked up a legal victory this week in its ongoing battle with the City of Santa Ana.

Micah’s Way, a faith-based organization in Santa Ana, was ordered to stop providing the city’s homeless with food or drinks at its resource center, which the city argued was in violation of its zoning ordinance.

As part of the spat, the city denied the ministry group its certificate of occupancy and threatened organizers with fines and potential criminal prosecution if it continued the practice.

Micah’s Way sued the city, arguing that it put a substantial burden on the organization and that distributing food and drinks to people in need was a “religious duty” and an act of religious exercise.

The city disagreed with that assertion and called for the lawsuit to be tossed out.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in federal court, which argued that feeding the homeless could be interpreted as a protected act and the city’s use of zoning regulation as a barrier to stop the practice could be considered a violation of RLUIPA, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.

RLUIPA is a federal law that aims to protect religious institutions, religious assemblies, as well as individuals, from discrimination in zoning and land use regulations by local governments.

In its statement of interest, the DOJ argued that there was enough evidence to support the basis of the suit from Micah’s Way and stated that the City of Santa Ana’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit should be denied.

“[Micah’s Way]’s complaint alleges sufficient facts plausibly showing that its food and
beverage distribution to homeless individuals is religious exercise protected by RLUIPA,
and that the City’s denial of its [certificate of occupancy] application substantially burdens its religious exercise in violation of RLUIPA,” the summary findings state.

U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada said in a news release Wednesday that the free exercise of religion was a “bedrock principle” in the nation.

“Religious groups should be entitled to exercise their religion by providing charitable services based in their religious beliefs. Our office firmly opposes actions that block religious groups from carrying out their spiritual mission to help others in need,” Estrada said.

“Many faith-based organizations across the country are on the front lines serving the needs of people experiencing homelessness,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said. She added that the DOJ was “committed” to ensuring federal civil rights laws related to religious exercise are enforced.

KTLA has reached out to both the City of Santa Ana and Micha’s Way for comment on the DOJ filing.

The City released a statement that said it fully supports the expression of religious beliefs and said it has actively worked to help those in need, but argued that Micah’s Way misused its administrative building when it held the food distributions.

The City of Santa Ana fully supports the expression of religious beliefs as well as helping those in need, as shown by the operation of our 200-bed homeless navigation center, hosting the County of Orange’s homeless shelter, and funding homeless outreach teams. In this case, however, Micah’s Way has been using its administrative office to distribute food in an area where this activity isn’t permitted. This has impacted the adjacent residential neighborhood, resulting in multiple complaints from residents. Micah’s Way has not shown that the City has placed a substantial burden on its religious exercise.

Statement from the City of Santa Ana

Micah’s Way has not yet responded for our request for comment.

The hearing to dismiss the case is scheduled to be heard on June 5.