Rev. Ray Redlich and volunteer Christopher Ohnimus were giving bologna sandwiches to homeless people in St. Louis last Halloween when police gave them each a ticket, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
With the citations came “city court summonses for handing out prepared food without a permit, according to the lawsuit and a copy of the summons,” the newspaper reported.
By their scheduled December court date, though, the city had dropped the case, St. Louis Public Radio reported.
“Issuing citations for this type of offense is not a priority for the city of St. Louis,” Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards said when the summonses were dropped, according to the Riverfront Times.
The Post-Dispatch reported that the tickets for feeding the homeless “(turned) out to be baloney.”
Despite the fact that the case was dropped, the Freedom Center of Missouri — on behalf of Redlich and Ohnimus — filed a federal lawsuit against the city, KMOX reported. It was filed on Tuesday.
“The 11th circuit court of appeals ... ruled that sharing food with the needy is itself an act of expressive conduct,” attorney Dave Roland said, according to KMOX. “It is protected by the First Amendment. It is one of the bedrock ideas of Christianity, and in fact the Bible says that in giving food to even the least of these you are giving food to Jesus himself. That’s why it’s so crucial to these gentlemen’s faith.”
The two men say that the citation violated “their right to practice their religion,” the Riverfront Times reported. The lawsuit also alleges the citation violated “their freedom of expression, their freedom of association (and) their rights of conscience,” the Post-Dispatch reported.
“I call it ministering to people,” Redlich said, according to KMOX. “That means serving. We’re ministering to the people on the streets, both on the spiritual dimension and also materially.”
In the lawsuit, the two men say it’s an “obligation as a follower of Jesus Christ to feed the hungry,” St. Louis Public Radio reported.
The lawsuit says “it’s unconstitutional to apply the regulations to people who are feeding others for religious reasons, instead of for profit,” the station reported. It does not question the health code, permits or food-service regulations.
St. Louis is expecting to win the lawsuit, City Counselor Julian Bush said in a written statement, according to the Riverfront Times.
“If these sandwiches had poisoned those who consumed them, there would have been an outcry that there was insufficient regulation; if not, there is a protest of over-regulation,” he wrote, according to the newspaper.
Volunteers who feed the homeless in Kansas City have also faced challenges, The Kansas City Star reported. In November 2018, city health inspectors shut down picnics and poured bleach on food that was planned for the homeless and hungry. The group still came back the next month and gave out more food — against the city’s wishes, the newspaper reported.
“I’m blessed, so I feel like blessing others,” Sharon Emert told the Star. “This is my way of giving back.”
The health department says the volunteers need to get permits, according to the newspaper.