Federal Appeals Court Ends Food Fight in Orlando in First Vagabonds Church of God v. City of Orlando
On April 12, 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit upheld the City of Orlando’s ordinance limiting public food-sharing in parks to twice-yearly.
Food-Sharing in Orlando
In 2005, Food Not Bombs, a group that shares food with low income and homeless residents, recognized the need for food-sharing in the City of Orlando. The organization began to offer a weekly meal at Lake Eola Park in Downtown Orlando.
Approximately 50-120 people attended the food-sharing each week. In 2008, they increased the food-sharings to twice weekly. The First Vagabonds Church of God began providing weekly meals at the park as well. People who lived in the neighborhoods surrounding the park complained to officials that these food-sharings were making the park less accessible to others.
The Ordinance, the Lawsuit and the Appeal
In 2006, the City Council, encouraged by the complaints of some neighbors, passed an ordinance that restricted public food-sharing. The ordinance required that organizations must obtain a permit to food-share with more than 25 people in a park. Only two permits would be available per park per year. This ordinance would require organizations like Food Not Bombs and First Vagabonds Church of God to obtain permits for multiple parks in order to continue with their food-sharings, which would require the groups to constantly move the weekly event.
In October of 2008, Food Not Bombs, First Vagabonds Church of God, and other individuals, filed a lawsuit against the City of Orlando on behalf of the food-sharing organizations and individuals. The lawsuit argued that the city’s ordinance violated several First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of the food-sharing organizations, as well as violating the Florida Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The federal district court found the law to be unconstitutional as an infringement on the parties’ rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion, but the city appealed the decision to the Eleventh Circuit.
In April of 2011, the Court of Appeals ruled in a unanimous decision to uphold the city limit of twice-yearly food-sharings in public parks. The court stated that the ordinance is not unconstitutionally restricting any party’s First Amendment rights, finding the ordinance to be “a reasonable time, place, or manner restriction” that does not impose any invalid regulation on expressive conduct. The decision relied upon the 1984 decision Clark v. Community For Creative Non-Violence , in which the Supreme Court upheld the U.S. Park Service’s ability to restrict protestors from sleeping in tents in Lafayette Park and the National Mall in Washington, DC.
The bulk of the legal assistance to the food-sharing groups and individuals was provided by Legal Advocacy at Work, a grassroots, non-profit law firm in Orlando. The American Civil Liberties Union also assisted with the litigation.
After the decision, food-sharing groups can only serve meals in the specified parks twice a year. Parties caught without a permit could be convicted of violating the city ordinance. Individuals or groups could be fined $500 or spend two months in jail if they continued to distribute weekly meals. In order to provide more than two meals a year, organizations will have to visit other parks and repeatedly change location. Consequently, the population served by the food-sharing will likely find it more difficult to ascertain the location of the next food-sharing event, which may reduce the number of people who can benefit from such programs. Food Not Bombs and the other parties are currently exploring possible next steps, including the possibility of pursuing review at the U.S. Supreme Court.