Christian nonprofit punished for feeding homeless in California city wins federal backing

SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — The US Justice Department lent its support to a religious nonprofit organization that was sanctioned and threatened with criminal prosecution by the city of Santa Ana, in Southern California, for feeding the homeless.

A Micah’s Way lawsuit claims Santa Ana infringed the nonprofit’s right to religious exercise when the city ordered it to stop distributing food and beverages at its resource center. The city denied the group’s certificate of occupancy and warned that he could be fined and prosecuted for allegedly violating the municipal code.

The Justice Department on Tuesday filed a Declaration of interest endorsing Micah’s Way, saying the Christian organization’s food distribution to the homeless “is an integral part of its religious exercise.” The statement was made in response to the city’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

Micah’s Way, which has been operating since 2005, said in its complaint that Santa Ana began warning it in the fall of 2021 that providing food and beverages outside its resource center violated municipal code.

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After the city issued Micah’s Way an administrative summons and told it to obtain a certificate of occupancy, the organization applied for the certificate but was denied based on zoning restrictions, according to the complaint.

In its motion to dismiss, the city said the food distribution was not a religious activity “but was simply a minor incidental use” and argued that prohibiting the organization from distributing food and beverages did not violate federal law.

“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 will be heard on June 5, the Times reported.

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