Christian nonprofit punished for feeding homeless people gains backing of Justice Department

SANTA ANA, CALIF. --FRIDAY, NOV. 10, 2017: "Just because it's an ugly day doesn't mean I have to be ugly," said Morgan "Mermaid" Gallerito, shown wearing a glamorous dress while being evicted with her belongings from a large homeless encampment along the Santa Ana River trail Friday, Nov. 10, 2017. The homeless were evicted by Orange County Sheriff's, Anaheim, Orange, and Fountain Valley Police officers who swept through the encampment to enforce an eviction notice that began Friday between Warner Ave. and Edinger Ave. along the Santa Ana River trail on the border of Fountain Valley and Santa Ana. Campers were generally heading to nearby streets and further north near Katella Ave. in Anaheim where they are not arrested. The Santa Ana River trail homeless sweep Friday calls for permanently closing the west side of the flood control channel between 17th Street in Santa Ana and Adams Avenue in Huntington Beach, a move that is expected to displace a large population of homeless people who have set up camp along the river. Neighbors and people living in the camps estimate the number at at least 150. The question of where they will move remains unanswered. Homeless people and their advocates say the county is simply pushing the issue down the road instead of solving it. Armories might provide temporary shelter for those displaced from the river trail. The National Guard armory in Santa Ana is open as a nightly sleeping area for the homeless during the winter. The Fullerton armory is expected to begin operating as a nighttime shelter Nov. 16. Some homeless people say they are resistant to shelters because they would have to get rid of their pets and stay in cramped conditions with little or no privacy. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Morgan "Mermaid" Gallerito and others are evicted from a large homeless encampment along the Santa Ana River in Santa Ana, where the city has sought to block a religious nonprofit from feeding homeless people at its resource center. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

An Orange County religious nonprofit that was penalized and threatened with criminal prosecution by Santa Ana for feeding homeless people now has the support of the U.S. Department of Justice in its ongoing legal battle with the city.

After Santa Ana officials ordered the nonprofit, Micah's Way, to stop distributing food and drinks at its resource center — arguing that doing so violated the municipal code — the city denied its certificate of occupancy and warned it could be fined and prosecuted. That drew a lawsuit from Micah's Way this year claiming that the city's actions infringed on the nonprofit's right to religious exercise.

The Justice Department agreed, saying the Christian organization's distribution of food and beverages to homeless people "is an integral part of its religious exercise," according to a statement of interest filed Tuesday in response to the city's motion to dismiss the suit.

Santa Ana's denial of the occupancy license for the Micah's Way resource center also placed a "substantial burden" on the organization's religious expression in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which bars governments from imposing land use rules that interfere with religious exercise, the department said.

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"Under the City’s demands, [Micah's Way] would be completely prohibited at its current location from distributing food and beverages to homeless individuals who come to its doors, a service that [Micah's Way] believes it has a 'religious duty' to perform," the Justice Department said.

“Many faith-based organizations across the country are on the front lines serving the needs of people experiencing homelessness," Assistant Atty. Gen. Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a statement. "The Justice Department is committed to enforcing federal civil rights laws to ensure that all religious groups can freely exercise their religious beliefs.”

Micah's Way, which has been operating since 2005, said in its complaint that Santa Ana began to warn it in fall 2021 that providing food and beverages out of its resource center was in violation of the municipal code.

After the city issued Micah's Way an administrative citation and told it to obtain a certificate of occupancy, the organization applied for the certificate but was denied on the basis of zoning restrictions, according to the complaint.

Micah's Way applied for the certificate a second time but was again denied last summer on the grounds that its food distribution practices were not permitted in the "professional district" that the resource center occupied.

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In its motion to dismiss, the city said the food distribution was not a religious activity "but was merely an incidental use of minor significance" and argued that barring the organization from giving out food and beverages did not violate federal law.

In a statement to The Times, Santa Ana officials said the city "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."

Micah's Way improperly used its administrative building to hand out food, "resulting in multiple complaints from residents" in the surrounding neighborhood, city officials alleged.

"Micah’s Way has not shown that the City has placed a substantial burden on its religious exercise," the city said.

The motion to dismiss is set to be heard June 5.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.