Judge orders city to delay enforcement of homeless feeding ban

Advocates serve food outside the Board of Health's public hearing on the ban.
RIKARD LARMA/METRO

A federal judge has ordered the city of Philadelphia to delay enforcement of a ban that would prohibit feeding the homeless in city parkland.

In a preliminary ruling, U.S. District Court Judge William Yohn said the city had no legitimate reasons for moving the feeding from the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to an alternative site on the City Hall apron, which he deemed “an inappropriate option.”

The order means that groups can continue providing meals to the hungry on Benjamin Franklin Parkway for the time being. Yohn said he will issue formal findings and a conclusion at a later time, which could either postpone the ban temporarily or uphold it.

“I may change my mind after I look at the cases,” he cautioned.

The ban, which Mayor Michael Nutter announced in March, took effect June 1, but was challenged by four religious groups who have provided meals on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway for at least a decade because they claimed the measure would infringe on their Constitutional right to exercise freedom of religion.

Members of the groups and their supporters hugged and clapped following Yohn’s decision.

“We’re hopeful that homeless people and that those who feed and try to serve others, we hope that these issues will ultimately prevail,” said City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who was present for much of the three-day hearing.

Yohn heard testimony from several witnesses, including the plaintiffs, the city’s top homeless advocate Sister Mary Scullion and Nutter.

The city argued that the ban was Constitutional because it did not violate the plaintiffs’ free speech rights and that it affected religious and non-religious groups alike.

The matter could still ultimately go to trial next year, but an attorney representing the plaintiffs indicated the sides would likely sit down and come up with a long-term solution.

“I think a resolution is not only possible, but desirable. There is no reason for this to be adversarial,” said Paul Messing, of civil rights firm Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing and Feinberg.


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