The U.S. Department of Justice has lent its support to a religious nonprofit that was penalized and threatened with criminal prosecution by the Southern California city of Santa Ana for feeding homeless people.
A lawsuit by Micah’s Way claims Santa Ana infringed on the nonprofit’s right to religious exercise when the city ordered it to stop distributing food and drinks at its resource center. The city denied the group’s certificate of occupancy and warned it could be fined and prosecuted for allegedly violating municipal code.
The Justice Department on Tuesday filed a statement of interest backing Micah’s Way, saying the the Christian organization’s distribution of food to homeless people “is an integral part of its religious exercise.” The statement was made in response to the city’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
“Many faith-based organizations across the country are on the front lines serving the needs of people experiencing homelessness,” Assistant Attorney General 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.
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 Los Angeles 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 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, the Times reported.