The Justice Department is backing a Christian organization that feeds people who are homeless in a California city that has denied the group an occupancy certificate.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a statement of interest in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, saying that the distribution of food to homeless people by the organization, Micah’s Way, may be a religious exercise defined by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.
Micah’s Way filed a lawsuit alleging that the city of Santa Ana is imposing a “substantial burden” on its religious exercise by denying an occupancy certification. After the city’s denial of the certificate, it told Micah’s Way that it could no longer distribute food to homeless people in violation of the city’s zoning ordinance.
If the group continued to do so, the city said it could impose fines and pursue potential criminal prosecution, according to DOJ’s press release. In its complaint, Micah’s Way argued that it has a religious duty to help people in need, including providing food and drink.
“Discriminatory barriers and land use restrictions against faith-based organizations is unlawful,” Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in a statement.
“Many faith-based organizations across the country are on the front lines serving the needs of people experiencing homelessness,” she added. “The Justice Department is committed to enforcing federal civil rights laws to ensure that all religious groups can freely exercise their religious beliefs.”
DOJ noted that Santa Ana filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, with the city arguing that providing food and drink to homeless people is not religious exercise.
The DOJ statement of interest pushed back on this argument.
“The free exercise of religion is a bedrock principle of our nation,” U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California Martin Estrada said in a statement. “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.”