Last Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Gregory A. Presnell struck down the City of Orlando's "Large Group Feeding Ordinance." The ordinance had been enacted to try to move groups of homeless people out of downtown. This, in effect, criminalized the actions of First Vagabonds Church of God holding worship services and food sharing on Sundays and Orlando Food Not Bombs (OFNB) which holds food sharings on Monday and Wednesday.
The Orlando Police Department made seven arrests of Orlando Food Not Bombs members who were allegedly violating or protesting the ordinance. (All were subsequently acquitted in jury trials.) These actions had the chilling effect of driving away most other churches and groups who were sharing food in the parks, since they were afraid of being labeled as "law breakers."
In the court's landmark ruling, for the first time the Federal Court has explicitly recognized sharing food as expressive conduct protected under the First Amendment. The court found "the restrictions clearly prevent OFNB from communicating its Constitutionally protected speech at a meaningful location [the public square] which, from time immemorial, has been the traditional public forum for free speech."
The court further found that the ordinance had "no rational basis," "more than incidentally burdened (Pastor) Nichols' congregation," and violated the First Amendment rights of Pastor Nichols and First Vagabonds Church of God.
The Orlando Sentinel quotes Orlando City Attorney Mayanne Downs as saying that "city officials hope to sit down with homeless advocates." That would be a first, as heretofore the mayor and his senior staff have refused to meet with OFNB and First Vagabonds Church of God and local clergy who had opposed the ordinance. Some other local clergy, who depend on the good graces of the city for funding and support, had written letters supporting the ordinance, eerily reminiscent of the "Call for Unity" letter written by Alabama clergy in 1963, that prompted Dr. Martin Luther King to write his "Letter from the Birmingham Jail."
Rev. Alan Clapsaddle is a social justice advocate and blogger in Orlando, working with the National Homeless Coalition and LA2W.org. Alan serves at First UCC Church of Orlando.