Our Opinion: Feeding homeless against the law? That’s insanity

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Food stamps and government assistance can be a bone of contention between conservatives and liberals, but who could object to private charity?

Homeless shelters, soup kitchens and individual do-gooders are championed on both sides of the aisle, even if support takes the form of lip service rather than dollars-and-cents donations. It’d be a fool’s errand, after all, to interfere with people who take the initiative to look after their down-and-out neighbors.

Yet some American cities are all too eager to play the fool, rushing in where angels fear to tread.

Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Salt Lake City, Utah, and Houston, Texas, have enacted ordinances that restrict simple acts of human kindness by criminalizing person-to-person food giveaways or requiring government permits.

In Houston, resident Phillip Paul Bryant sued the city last week under the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, arguing that the rule prevents him from following the dictates of his conscience as a devout Christian.

The city ordinance requires residents to obtain a permit in order to feed five or more people. But Bryant’s food donations can’t be scheduled in advance; he helps the hungry when and where they appear.

“Plaintiff cannot ask Defendant for a permit because he does not know in advance when Christ will compel him to share food or when someone hungry will ask him for help,” attorneys Eric B. Dick and Randall L. Kallinen wrote in the civil petition, filed in Harris County (Texas) District Court.

Citing no fewer than 21 Bible verses, Bryant’s attorneys make a compelling case that Christians who feed the hungry are acting out their faith. Licensing, restricting or banning the charitable outreach violates not only a Texas state law, but the First Amendment’s free-exercise clause.

In uncharacteristically clear language for a legal brief, the plaintiff’s lawyers shame the city of Houston, concluding that the charitable feeding ban is “just plain wrong.”

“It regulates a natural expression of human compassion and inhibits my client from sharing food and water with those who need help,” the petition states. “When my client drives around, he is immediately criminalized because he doesn’t have prior written permission for the locations where he finds starving people — a significant portion of Houston’s homeless rely on these forms of spontaneous feeding.”

Heavy-handed government restrictions on private charity meet with near-universal condemnation. The only folks who seem to be in favor of such nonsense are bureaucrats and busybodies.

The former are spooked by spontaneous acts of kindness and want everything permitted, regulated and subject to government oversight. The latter believe feeding the homeless in public places is unsightly.

We agree with Phillip Bryant that restrictions on personal charity are unconstitutional on their face. Cities like Houston should take them off the books before the courts do it for them.

While Wilson has no such ordinance, Raleigh has considered regulating public food distribution as recently as 2013. In this case, a good offense may be the best defense. Elected officials must give clear assurances that they’d vote against such loony rules if they were ever to be considered here.