ACLU wins on Two Counts, Claims Victory
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
ORLANDO, Fla. – The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida won an overwhelming victory today in First Vagabonds Church of God vs. City of Orlando, the highly publicized "homeless feeding" case in Orlando. The 14-page opinion issued by Federal Judge Gregory A. Presnell hinged on the plaintiffs' right to Free Exercise of Religion and Freedom of Speech.
The lawsuit was filed by the ACLU on October 12, 2006 on behalf of the First Vagabonds Church of God (FVCG), Orlando Food Not Bombs (OFNB) and several individuals. The lawsuit alleged that the City of Orlando's ordinance on Large Group Feeding violated religious groups' constitutional rights to free speech, free assembly, free association and freedom of religion. The City's ordinance required groups and individuals to apply for a permit, only two of which are allowed per year, in order to share food with more than twenty-five people in downtown public parks. Violations were punishable by sixty days in jail and a $500 fine.
"After a two-year battle in court, we are thrilled that the court is vindicating the rights of the First Vagabonds Church of God and Orlando Food Not Bombs, and the homeless persons they serve," said ACLU senior attorney Glenn Katon, who also heads up the ACLU of Florida's Nancy and Martin Engels Religious Freedom Project. "Freedom of religion and freedom of speech are the cornerstones of the First Amendment and this ordinance flew in the face of the most basic constitutional rights of people using the parks to share food with the homeless. Now, thanks to a lot of hard work by many, they can."
The opinion states: "The Court finds that there is no rational basis for this Ordinance. None of the legitimate government interests proffered by the City are served by this Ordinance. Furthermore…the Ordinance does much more than incidentally burden Nichols' congregation…therefore, the Court finds that the application of this Ordinance violates the First Amendment rights of Nichols and FVCG."
"If the spirit of God draws number twenty-six to me, how can I tell God, 'no'," Pastor Brian Nichols of the FVCG said earlier this year. "How can I choose between God's will and the City of Orlando's ordinance?"
The judge's opinion went on to say: "Rather than address the problem of homelessness in these downtown neighborhoods directly, the City has instead decided to limit the expressive activity which attracts the homeless to these neighborhoods. While the Ordinance may very well accomplish the goal of diminishing the number of homeless in the Thornton Park and Lake Eola neighborhoods, the restriction clearly prevents OFNB from communicating its Constitutionally protected speech at a meaningful location which, from time immemorial, has been the traditional public forum for free speech. Although some incidental restrictions on First Amendment freedoms must be tolerated, the Court concludes that the restriction here goes too far."
"This ruling sends a loud and clear signal to the Orlando community – the ACLU is here to stay, and we will be protecting the Constitution in Central Florida," said Dr. Joyce Hamilton Henry, ACLU of Florida Central Region Director. "We expanded into this part of the state because there are so many real issues that need our attention – and we are already seeing the benefits to our presence here."
The FVCG and OFNB are Orlando-based organizations that assemble weekly to share food in public parks and to express their religious and political beliefs, respectively. The FVCG is a homeless church without a building for worship. Pastor Nichols' religion requires him to share food and help provide life sustaining services with his congregation.
"This has been an emotional legal battle – and we are pleased that in this case the rights of the downtrodden are being vindicated," said Jackie Dowd, ACLU cooperating attorney. "This was a mean-spirited ordinance. Hopefully it sends a signal to the City of Orlando that we mean business and we won't tolerate unconstitutional policy in Orlando."
Attorneys in First Vagabonds Church of God vs. City of Orlando were Glenn Katon, ACLU of Florida senior attorney; and Jacqueline Dowd, ACLU Cooperating Attorney.
A copy of today's opinion can be downloaded in PDF at: www.aclufl.org/pdfs/OrlandoHomelessOrder.pdf