ACLU, local firm sue Philly over outdoor food serving ban

    A Philadelphia civil rights lawyer and the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the City of Philadelphia Tuesday, seeking an injunction that would overturn the ban on serving food in public parks.

    The complaint alleges the ban, which went into effect Friday, violates constitutional protections for freedom of expression and religion. It was filed on behalf of four religiously affiliated groups that serve hungry people outdoors.

    “What they’re doing out there, as far as they’re concerned, and as far as the law is concerned, is exercising their religious beliefs,” said attorney Paul Messing. “And a ban on the use of the entirety of Fairmount Park violates their first amendment rights.”

    The suit claims the groups serve in the park because there are “virtually no other centrally located public areas in Philadelphia where they can gather…”

    The city would not comment on the lawsuit, but a spokesman has previously pointed out that groups are still free to serve food in outdoor locations outside the park system, including on sidewalks outside their ministries, if they wish.

    Before the ban went into effect, Philadelphia installed portable toilets and hand washing stations on the apron of City Hall and offered the area up for groups to serve food there.

    It also launched a task force looking at ways to increase indoor food service space.

    Monsignor Arthur Rodgers, rector of the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, said he disagrees that the ban violates freedom of religion, and stands by the city’s new rule, which he hopes will better protects the dignity of the city’s hungry.

    He said groups should only serve food if they can provide bathrooms and other facilities to those who eat it.

    “The city has been working on trying to set up those facilities and provide those facilities, so isn’t a sense where the city has just said no and hasn’t done anything about it,” Rodgers said.  “They’ve looked at the situation and they have tried to provide the facilities necessary to respect the dignity of these people.”

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