A religious group’s fight to feed homeless people in Santa Ana – over city officials’ objections – has caught the eyes and ears of the U.S. Dept. of Justice.

The dispute centers on an all-volunteer Christian ministry that’s suing City Hall, which has refused to allow the group to operate out of their center on 4th Street as local leaders try to limit the number of homeless aid groups in their town.

Now federal officials have waded in.

The dispute “implicates the proper interpretation and application” of federal protections for religious groups who consider it a religious duty to feed and help the homeless, department officials say. 

And they’re getting behind the faith-based center known as Micah’s Way.

The issue comes down to whether the City of Santa Ana is infringing upon the right to religious exercise under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000. 

The Congressional statute passed with bipartisan support, and it prohibits cities and other jurisdictions from burdening a religious exercise through land use regulations, unless officials can prove a compelling reason and that they’re regulating in the least restrictive way. 

In a May 9 court filing, officials with the Justice Department wrote that the faith group’s arguments are solid. 

Micah’s Way “alleges sufficient facts plausibly showing (1) that its food and beverage distribution to homeless individuals is religious exercise protected by RLUIPA, and (2) that the City’s denial of its [Certificate of Occupancy] application substantially burdens its religious exercise in violation of RLUIPA,” reads the Justice Department filing.

“Therefore, the City’s motion to dismiss [the lawsuit] should be denied,” it adds.

Read the full filing here.

After the publication of this story, City Hall spokesperson Paul Eakins on Wednesday responded to the DOJ’s involvement with the following written statement:

“The City of Santa Ana fully supports the expression of religious beliefs as well as helping those in need, as shown by the operation of our 200-bed homeless navigation center, hosting the County of Orange’s homeless shelter, and funding homeless outreach teams.” 

It adds: 

“In this case, however, Micah’s Way has been using its administrative office to distribute food in an area where this activity isn’t permitted. This has impacted the adjacent residential neighborhood, resulting in multiple complaints from residents. Micah’s Way has not shown that the City has placed a substantial burden on its religious exercise.”

The issues largely played out under former Mayor Vicente Sarmiento, now a county supervisor, who the lawsuit references as playing a role in garnering neighborhood opposition to the center at a community meeting.

Reached for comment while in a county transportation meeting on Wednesday, Sarmiento responded in a text message: 

“I believe Micah’s Way provides a valuable resource and service for the unhoused.  Unfortunately, they face challenges because they are located in a residential neighborhood, many times exceed their scope of services, and impacts are felt more acutely because children and families literally live adjacent to the site.”

A request for comment from current Mayor Valerie Amezcua went unreturned on Wednesday.

It comes as Santa Ana officials’ effort to crack down on street-level homeless clinics and charitable groups through the zoning code has them fending off multiple lawsuits by critics, who call the practice discriminatory against the unhoused residents relying on the services. 

That included the lawsuit by Micah’s Way, whose practice of handing out food and drinks to people – who mainly come in for personal documents and services like mail collection – was deemed an unpermitted property use by City Hall officials. 

Long considered Orange County’s “dumping ground” for wealthier cities’ homeless residents, officials in Santa Ana have over the years moved to restrict the services whose poor clientele, they argue, presents a nuisance and safety concern for neighboring residents.

[Read: Homeless Service Providers Fight Back Against Santa Ana Effort to Crack Down on Clinics]

The city has since filed a motion to dismiss Micah’s Way’s lawsuit, arguing it doesn’t sufficiently demonstrate that the city’s infringing on the faith group’s right to religious exercise. 

“Prohibiting Plaintiff from distributing food is not excessively burdensome and does not pressure Plaintiff to modify its behavior to violation its religious belief […] Plaintiff’s food activity is incidental to its primary use of providing services to the underserved,” reads the March 22 motion submitted by City Attorney Sonia Carvalho.

It argues that food distribution is prohibited for the entire commercial zoning district in which Micah’s Way is located — not just for Micah’s Way.

“All food distribution activity is prohibited for all organizations and entities regardless of commercial or religious status in the City’s Professional district. Therefore, the incidental burden on Plaintiff’s free exercise of religion, if any, is not violative of the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause.”

But the Justice Department is asking the case’s presiding U.S. District Judge, David O. Carter, to let the lawsuit proceed.

A hearing on the city’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit is set for June 5.

“The City’s argument ignores the plain language of RLUIPA, which expressly
protects ‘any’ religious exercise regardless of whether it is ‘compelled by, or central to,
a system of religious belief,'” reads the department filing.

It also states:

“Because this litigation implicates the proper interpretation and application of RLUIPA, the United States has a strong interest in the issues raised by the City’s Motion and believes that its participation will aid the Court.”

Ed Connor, an attorney for Micah’s Way, said it’s “certainly validation of Micah’s Way’s claims.”

“It underscores what a travesty it is that the city is devoting its time and resources to prevent decent human beings from providing a simple muffin and cup of coffee to the poor and homeless,” he said. 

“It’s a violation of law and human decency,” Connor added. “And this move by the DOJ will hopefully send a clear message to the city that it’s violating the law and should stop.”

Connor’s also fighting the city in another lawsuit, this time from a low-income health clinic that hoped to provide dental, pharmaceutical and vision services for poor people on North Main Street.

That is, until recent council-adopted zoning laws banned nonprofit service providers in certain areas, and prevented the clinic – known as Share Our Selves – from closing escrow on a three-story, 44,000-square-foot commercial office building near the Main Place Mall.

That lawsuit alleges it’s all part of “an orchestrated campaign to use the City’s land use regulations to thwart and obstruct the operations of charitable organizations, like Micah’s Way and the Salvation Army, who try to provide much-needed services to poor and homeless persons residing in Santa Ana.”

As the seat of county government and center for regional social services and the jails, Santa Ana officials have for years pushed back on their city becoming wealthier areas’ repository for the unhoused – arguing they’ve borne the brunt of a regional crisis.

It drove the city’s opposition to hosting a county-run cold weather shelter last year, creating a legal dispute which killed a County of Orange contract with Salvation Army and delayed an emergency rain refuge for the homeless by months, until another location was found in Fullerton.

[Read: Trench Foot & Infections: Street Medics Treating Homeless People Brace for Storm Aftermath

On the issue of Micah’s Way, Connor said the city has “literally made a federal case out of this.” 

“Now the DOJ is involved.”

This story was updated at 5:34 p.m. on May 10 to include a statement from City Hall regarding the DOJ filing.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @brandonphooo.

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