Updated:ORLANDO, Fla.,None — Lawyers for the city of Orlando will go before the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta Tuesday to try stop a group from serving meals to the homeless at Lake Eola. For more than four years, the city has spent nearly $150,000 fighting the group Food Not Bombs.
A federal appeals court in Atlanta is taking another look at whether Orlando, Fla. was right to restrict groups who give food to the needy in a public park. The free speech case could test the limits of city ordinances aimed at the homeless.
The Orlando chapter of the group Food Not Bombs challenged a 2006 ordinance that required groups have a permit to feed 25 or more people in one of the 42 parks located in a downtown district. The rules also restrict the groups to two permits per year for each park.
The charity group, along with a local church, contended in arguments Tuesday that the city's rules violate their ability to spread the message that having food is a basic right. They also contend that the permit restrictions block them from sharing food in a more consistent way that can attract the needy.
A federal judge originally blocked the city from enforcing the ordinance, ruling that it violated the groups' freedom of speech and religion. But a three-judge panel reversed the ruling by a 2-1 vote, finding that the city's rules were both reasonable and constitutional.
The oral arguments Tuesday seemed to expose a rift in the court on the issue. Several judges suggested that feeding people in the park shouldn't be considered protected free speech. Others noted how the act of breaking bread has significant religious meaning that needed to be protected.
City attorneys, meanwhile, pressed a separate issue: They said there was a substantial government interest at stake in protecting the park. They argued that allowing the routine mass feedings caused safety and sanitary problems, strained city resources and led to more wear and tear.
Jacqueline Dowd, an attorney for Food Not Bombs, countered that the city offered no evidence that the ordinance actually protected the interest of the park, and suggested in court documents that the feedings could help decrease crime.
"These folks are not subhuman," Dowd said. "They deserve to be treated like anyone else and they have equal rights to the parks."
Previous Stories: February 10, 2011: Orlando Spending Thousands To Continue Fight Over Homeless Feedings July 26, 2010: Food Not Bombs Files For Ordinance Rehearing July 7, 2010: Court Sides With City On Homeless Feeding Ordinance December 2, 2008: City Expected To Spend Thousands Appealing Homeless Feeding Ruling October 21, 2008: ACLU Lawyers Want $300,000 For Fighting Homeless Feeding Ban September 29, 2008: Homeless Feeding Ban Overturned, Celebrated By "Food Not Bombs" June 24, 2008: Mayor Says Feeding Group Isn't Advocate For The Homeless June 24, 2008: Buddy Dyer To Testify In Orlando Homeless Feeding Federal Case June 23, 2008: Mayor To Be Called To Stand During Trial Over Homeless Feeding Ban April 3, 2008: Group Known For Feeding Homeless Will Get Trial Against City Ordinance October 11, 2007: Group Feeding Homeless Again After Member Found Not Guilty October 10, 2007: City Says They Will Continue Enforcing Mass Feeding Ordinance October 9, 2007: Jury Deliberating In Homeless Feeding Violation Case October 8, 2007: Group Intentionally Violating City Ordinance During "Ladle Fest" September 26, 2007: City Fences Off Picnic Area That Group Uses To Feed Homeless July 30, 2007: Protestors Enter Not Guilty Plea On Noise Violation Charges May 17, 2007: Homeless Protest Disrupts Mayor's Fundraiser April 5, 2007: Activist Arrested For Feeding Homeless At Lake Eola August 2, 2006: Orlando Group Plans To Continue Feeding Homeless July 25, 2006: City Passes Ordinance Restricting Homeless Feeding July 24, 2006: Orlando Homeless Feeding Plan Faces Public Protest July 24, 2006: City Council To Vote On Homeless Feeding June 21, 2006: ACLU May Sue To Block Orlando's Feeding Ordinance June 15, 2006: Controversy Over City Commissioner's "Homeless" Email