Sunday, April 19, 2015

Fined for Feeding the Homeless

           Religious freedom laws have recently been thrust into the center of the American political discourse. As many fear the possibility of people using these “freedoms” to discriminate against specific groups of people it is also important to realize what these laws are supposed to protect.

Every Tuesday for the last decade, Joan Cheever hands out free meals to the homeless out of her food truck. Last week, as she was performing her weekly ritual in a public park in San Antonio, Texas she was fined two thousand dollars by police for not having the correct permits for a mobile vendor. However, Cheever immediately asserted that in this instance the police were impeding her free exercise of a religion and mentioned Texas’ Freedom of Restoration Act. As Cheever recounts her claims of religious freedom was met with the response from one of the police offers saying “Ma'am if you want to pray, go to church” to which Cheever responded “This is how I pray, when I cook this food and deliver it to the people who are less fortunate.” Cheever has stated that she plans to fight the fine and last week returned to feeding the homeless -this time with a large blown-up version of the Freedom of Restoration Act next to her truck.

Upon initial review it is frustrating to see somebody who is deliberately trying to aid needy persons be punished for their generosity. It appears that Cheever is acting out of the goodness of her heart and the natural reaction is that she should be celebrated not reprimanded for her actions. At the same time, the City of San Antonio maintains that there is a vested state interest in this situation. As the city declares through its spokesmen “The citation was issued for failing to adhere to long-standing regulations that are in place to ensure public health and safety.” In the eyes of the city of San Antonio, Cheever is breaking the law and the fact that it is by feeding the homeless is irrelevant. Instead, they say, she should perhaps volunteer at the homeless shelter downtown.

Cheever’s claims of a burden to her religious exercise are especially interesting since the act of feeding the homeless, while often associated with religious organizations-is not considered by most to be a religious act. The “If you want to pray, go to church” line coming from one of the police officers is indicative of this viewpoint. However, it is very difficult to discern what the core tenets of an individual’s faith are. It is worth noting that on her website there is absolutely no mention of religion in her mission. However, I encourage you to check out the website, view the videos and see what she is doing.

I believe the same Supreme Court that heard Employment Division v. Smith would in this instance side in favor of the city of San Antonio. Just as religious beliefs do not excuse the Native American workers from compliance with a law that is valid in its attempt to regulate conduct the court would conclude the same could be applied to Cheever. There is no question, that there is state interest in Cheever’s case and the city is trying to look after the best interests of its population.
In the majority opinion of Employment Division v. Smith, Justice Scalia writes that allowing exceptions to every state law or regulation affecting religion “would open the prospect of constitutionally required exemptions from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind.” However, in this instance, I disagree-I believe Cheever should be granted an exemption and not be forced to go through the burdensome processes of spending money to get the necessary permits etc.

It is dangerous to say that the state’s Freedom of Restoration Act allows for a wanton disregard of valid laws put in place by government. However, I believe that in this isolated incident she should be allowed to continue giving food to the homeless because it is a valid expression of her faith and even if it is not-it is beneficial to the City of San Antonio.

Cheever estimates that every Tuesday she serves between twenty five and seventy five people. As she is quoted as saying after she was fined “you can’t just turn away from your neighbor when they’re in need. We don’t do that in San Antonio.” What sort of message does it send when a noble person is restricted from aiding the homeless and financially punished because of it? As long as the food is safe I believe the government should not be getting involved. Except for moral gratification and fulfillment Cheever operates a non-profit and receives no financial reward for her actions. I would feel comfortable saying that we need more people like Joan Cheever.

What do you think should happen to Ms. Cheever? Do you buy her claims that the Freedom of Restoration Act protects her rights? Is she taking advantage of this Act? or do you believe that the city’s perceived interests trump the individuals?  


Will P. said...

I believe that Mrs. Cleever is performing a great public service, and should be commended for her actions. However, it would be an incredible stretch for her to apply the freedom of religious restoration act to her case. While she may find faith and religious benefit from feeding the homeless, she is still feeding the homeless. Her food truck, just like every other food truck, must acquire the proper permits. I believe there is a state interest in requiring her to have the proper permits, to maintain that she is serving food that is prepared correctly and safely etc. It is unfortunate, and i would hope the city would give her a warning, however I cannot find fault in the police for issuing the citation, when she is clearly in violation of a health code. She is doing a great thing, just needs to follow the appropriate channels.

Adam Drake said...

I am in agreement with Will here. What Mrs. Cleever is doing is great for the community and I fully support her efforts, but she should still abide by the law. The permit process is set up in order to ensure the safety of the public and there is a state interest to do so. Allowing her to be exempt from this is opening a door to other people making religious claims in order to side step many other laws. On the other hand, I do understand the circumstances in this case were a little different. I would have suggested that maybe the police handled this with a warning, look the other way, or even work something out so she has a permanent permit to distribute food.

Anonymous said...

Mrs. Cleever is doing a great deed and shows true passion and faith in her mission, which makes it hard to side against her. Mrs. Cleever has the right to believe what she wants. However, she cannot DO whatever she wants in the public sphere just because it is part of her faith. I think that was the message the officer was trying to get across by saying "go to church to pray" even though it seemed to come off as extremely rude. The permits required are for the compelling state interest to ensure the safety of the general public. This might be a bit of a stretch, however, that women could have set up the truck her first time preaching she was doing God's will by feeding the hungry, when in reality she could have been a devil worshipper who poisoned all the food to kill all the homeless people in San Antionio. This seems far fetched, but crazier things have happened and the government must continue to enforce permit laws like this to ensure crazy things like that don't happen.

Abby Copp said...

I am not at all convinced that Ms. Cheever should have been fined for doing this. Yes, I will agree that it is somewhat of a stretch for her to justify her actions under the freedom of religious restoration act, but that does not mean that she should be fined. If we remember correctly, she was cited because of her lack of a permit as a food vendor. Just because she served food to the homeless from a food truck does not mean that she is a vendor, because the homeless are obviously not paying for the food they receive. If the state was really looking out for the interests of its population, it would allow Ms. Cheever to serve food to the needy from her truck and forget about its own need to make money off of fines.

Trevor T said...

I feel like Ms. Cheever is doing a great service to the community and helping the homeless is admirable and very impressive and kind thing to do however, I think that her attempting to avoid getting the proper requirements and permits due to her religious beliefs and the RFRA. If the state wants to grant an exception then I think this would be a great cause and a great person to give one to, but to claim she is being religiously burden by not being allowed to give food to the homeless is ridiculous. I respect the secular mission of her food truck and hope she would be allowed to continue the kind service she provides, but I do not think she is protected by any religious rights

Courtney W. said...

I feel as though the author made a great point by invoking the case of Employment v. Smith. In that case, the Supreme Court decided that religious convictions do not make someone better than the law. A person may not defy neutral laws on the basis of their religious convictions. In this case, the law requiring a permit for food trucks is a neutral law. It is because of this that I believe that she should not be allowed to apply the Religious Freedom Act to justify her actions.

Nneoma I. said...

Everyone is required to abide by the same law. Those who seek exemption must have a reasonable excuse to be seen different under the eyes of the law. She must have her own permits, just as everyone (religious or not) does. It is unfortunate that such a great deed has a high cost. But her religious freedom is not being personally attacked. Everyone must adhere to this law.