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Orlando’s Food-Sharing Ordinance

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Advocacy, Awareness, Civil Rights, Food Sharing

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.

Looking Forward

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.

Is it legal to restrict food-sharing?

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Advocacy, Awareness, Criminalization, Food Sharing

By Jackie Dowd

The food-sharing in downtown Orlando went on as usual last Wednesday night, despite the decision by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals that upheld the city’s ordinance restricting groups and individuals from sharing food with homeless and hungry people in public parks.

The 2-1 ruling, handed down on July 6, overturned a trial court’s determination that the food-sharing events were expressive conduct protected by the First Amendment. The federal appeals court found that the likelihood was not great that a reasonable observer would understand Orlando Food Not Bombs’ conduct of simply feeding people to be “truly communicative.”

The court also ruled that the ordinance does not violate the right to free exercise of religion by the First Vagabonds Church of God, a ministry by and for the homeless. The ordinance applies to about 40 of Orlando’s 99 parks, and limits food-sharing events to two per park per year.

In the wake of the court decision: What’s next?

Way back at the beginning of this case, we told ourselves: “If we win, then we win. But even if we lose, we win.”

That’s because even then, in the summer of 2006, we were thinking about the big picture. What the First Vagabonds Church of God v. City of Orlando lawsuit accomplished was to bring the discussion of homelessness and poverty out into the open in Orlando, in a way that it never has before. Making sure that discussion continues is vitally important, and that will be an important consideration in deciding what the next steps will be.

There are several legal options, such as seeking a rehearing before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. We have a few more days to decide exactly what to do.

Many people have asked why we didn’t pursue a freedom of assembly claim. At the beginning of the case, we did assert that the ordinance violated the right to freedom of assembly. But the trial judge ruled for the city on that claim, determining that the members of Food Not Bombs and their homeless friends are free to assemble in the park so long as they do not serve food.

There also are options outside the courtroom. Perhaps the most important is making sure the food-sharings continue, as they have every Wednesday evening for more than five years.

Moving to outside the restricted zone (a 2-mile radius of City Hall) is being discussed. While there are good reasons for staying at Lake Eola Park, the members of Orlando Food Not Bombs are concerned about the impact of increased police scrutiny on the homeless and hungry folks they are helping. Many of the people who come to eat a healthy vegan meal have outstanding warrants or other issues with law enforcement. In past, attendance has been low when police are present at the food-sharing.

Lake Eola Park – often described as the “crown jewel” of Orlando’s 99 parks – was chosen for its symbolic value in conveying a message to the upper-middle class folks who live and work in what is often described as a gentrified area of downtown. In many ways, that message has been delivered.

Continuing the public discussion of homelessness and poverty may be the most important item on our “to do” list. Food Not Bombs will be meeting with other groups that have been using the park for sharing food, looking at the big picture and planning ways to build stronger community and political will to reduce homelessness and poverty.

And there’s an even bigger picture to keep in mind. The United States does not guarantee its citizens the right to food. Twenty-two other countries have enshrined the right to food in their constitutions, either for all citizens or specifically for children. Our friends at the National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty have been working hard to promote the right to housing set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family including … housing.”

So there’s a lot of work still to do. The food-sharings will continue and we will be working toward some larger goals, too.

The silver lining here may be that the continued sense of injustice in the wake of the 11th Circuit’s decision just may help us accomplish our larger goals.

Resources:
National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) and National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s (NLCHP) Food Sharing Report

NLCHP’s information page on housing and other human rights

Opinion piece about the court decision

Jackie Dowd is an NCH AmeriCorps*VISTA Member and Volunteer Lawyer who coordinates the Faces of Homelessness Speakers’ Bureau in conjunction with the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida in Orlando. Check out Jackie’s blog on homeless and other social justice issues at http://www.jackiedowd.blogspot.com/

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