The hard way, as reported by the Sun-Sentinel:
Calling this city a place where you have to "pay to pray," two groups that feed the homeless took a swipe at West Palm Beach on Wednesday in a lawsuit objecting to a new ban on those feedings in downtown parks.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, argues that the city is violating the constitutional rights of the groups to assemble and worship freely and is targeting the poor and the homeless.
"We would like to work with the city," said attorney Barry Silver, who is representing one of the two plaintiffs. "Instead, the city is trying to prevent agencies that are trying to help the homeless. This is the wrong direction for the city to go."
The lawsuit argues that in the city under Mayor Lois Frankel, those wishing to freely practice religion must "contribute to the mayor's favorite charities, which include her own campaign war chest."
The veiled reference to a recent grand jury report, that labeled the city a place where developers perceive a "pay-to-play" policy under Frankel, brought sharp retort.
"The notion that you somehow have to contribute money to practice your religion is absurd," city spokesman Peter Robbins said. "It makes a nice headline, but there's no truth to it at all."
When the City Commission passed the law on Sept. 24, city leaders said they were responding to complaints of struggling downtown business owners that the feedings created disturbances with panhandlers and some drug use.
But the two groups that feed the homeless — Food Not Bombs, which is not religious, and Art and Compassion, which is a ministry without a church — argued that it was an effort to sweep the homeless out of sight.
Silver said Frankel rejected efforts by the groups to discuss the issue.
"She listened to the business community," Silver said. "But to the homeless community, she turned a deaf ear. That's why we call it a 'pay to pray' system."
Robbins said the city thinks that Centennial Square, where children come to the public library and play at the fountain, is an inappropriate venue for food distributions. He said the city offered several compromises, but all were rejected.
"All we are seeking in this ordinance is balance," Robbins said. "The homeless issue is a serious issue that needs to be addressed. We are just seeking to balance the needs of the homeless with all the other needs that come into play."
The lawsuit cites the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, saying the law violates freedoms of worship and assembly.
It also contends that the law violates the Florida Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which says that if the government must burden a person's right to exercise religion, it must do so with the least restrictive means.
"Criminalizing food sharing is not the least restrictive means of assuaging any perceived 'conflict' with the public's use of these public parks," the lawsuit states.
Robbins said city staff reviewed the ordinance carefully before the commission voted to make it law, and he was confident there was nothing unlawful in it.
The lawsuit asks the court for a temporary suspension of the law until a ruling is made and a permanent removal of it.
"When it comes to helping the homeless, governments should lead, follow or get out of the way," Silver said. "So far, they've failed to lead, refused to follow and this lawsuit is our effort to force the city to get out of the way and let us help those who are in need."
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