ministry seeks right to feed homeless - Virginia bills proposed

Tom Boland (
Tue, 17 Feb 1998 11:18:28 -0800 (PST)

FWD 2/4/98 By Jan Cienski, Associated Press Writer - Virginia AP


RICHMOND, Va. -- Should George Acosta and other homeless people be allowed
to wander through one of Richmond's most affluent neighborhoods on Sundays
on their way to a church soup kitchen?

Some residents opposed it and persuaded the city to try to curb it.

The subsequent clash between the right to the free exercise of religion and
the right of homeowners prompted two legislators to file bills barring
governments from interfering with religious beliefs.

''It's part of their ministry,'' said Acosta, a well-spoken, middle-age man
with a black beard flecked with grey. ''Isn't charity a basic tenet of just
about every major religion?''

Patti B. Russell, director of the meal ministry, said: ''We're not just a
bunch of mindless do-gooders. We feel this is something that churches are
impelled to do -- to care for people who need help.''

In 1996, a homeowners association in the Fan -- a trendy neighborhood of
19th and early 20th century row houses -- asked the city to investigate the
feeding program run by the Stuart Circle Parish. The program feeds 80 to
120 people a week.

''My original complaint was that churches seem to be given rights that none
of the rest of us have,'' said David Johannas, who filed the request and
who lives about 400 feet from the soup kitchen. ''In a country that is
supposed to be a free country, why is it that religious groups get more
freedom than other groups?''

City officials said the program violated a 1991 ordinance that limits
feeding programs for homeless people in residential neighborhoods to seven
times a year and no more than 30 people.

After six denominations involved in Stuart Circle staged vocal protests at
Council meetings and sued in federal court, the city backed down and
decided to let the soup kitchen remain open while the ordinance is

''We saw local government behaving in what I call an arrogant manner,''
said Del. Donald A. McEachin, D-Richmond, who sponsored one of the bills.
''That for me was the genesis of'' the legislation.

The other bill was filed by Del. Kenneth Plum, D-Fairfax.

In addition to dealing with the Stuart Circle dispute, the religious
freedom bills are designed to fill the gap left last year when the U.S.
Supreme Court overturned part of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration
Act. The act had required governments to demonstrate a compelling need for
a law that substantially burdened religious expression.

Eleven states have filed similar bills to Virginia's, said Melissa Rogers,
associate general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee, a nonprofit
church-state watchdog group based in Washington, D.C.

The Virginia bills would help all sorts of religious expression, not just
soup kitchens.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Richmond has occasionally run into trouble
when priests try to take sacramental wine into prisons to say mass, said
Stephen Colecchi, special assistant to the bishop. ''We've worked through
that now but something like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act would
have been helpful,'' he said.

The bills would also help five Buddhist monks who were prevented from
sharing a house in Fairfax County. A local ordinance forbids more than four
unrelated people from living together, but many Buddhist ceremonies require
five participants, said Ron Smolla, a law professor at the College of
William and Mary.

While major religious groups from Jews to Catholics and Evangelical
Christians support the religious freedom legislation, local governments
fear the bills will undercut their authority to make zoning regulations.

''Although the bill has very good intentions, the legislation as it has
been drafted will have a chilling effect on the actions of local
officials,'' said Clay Wirt, legislative counsel for the Virginia Municipal
League. ''If you take it literally it makes it extremely difficult to

The legislation has also raised fears that prisoners could file harassing
lawsuits demanding special diets and materials for religious services. That
has prompted Gov. Jim Gilmore to request that any legislation have a
provision excluding prisoners, said his spokesman Mark Miner.

After all the constitutional arguments have been aired, the issue for
Acosta boils down to one of fairness.

''It's the old not-in-my-back-yard syndrome,'' he said while reclining on a
decaying yellow couch at the Daily Planet, a shelter for the homeless in
downtown Richmond. ''I don't like the fact we have to keep redefining basic
freedoms we're supposed to have.''

AP-ES-02-04-98 1746EST


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