Members of a religious group threatened with ticketing and arrest for serving meals to the homeless at Doheny State Park can resume their ministry under a settlement with state parks officials announced today. The agreement stemmed from a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Southern California, alleging the state had infringed on the group's freedom of expression and religion.
'It is a good day when we can express our faith by helping our fellow human beings,' said James Seiler, the former president of Welcome INN (Interfaith Needs Network), the plaintiffs in the case. 'It's comforting to see that state government officials have come to understand the importance of religious liberty, no matter how it is expressed.'
In February, state park rangers threatened to cite and arrest members of Welcome INN for violating Section 4321 of the California State Administrative Code when the religious group hosted meals for about 40 homeless people in the picnic area of Doheny.
Patti Church, the current president of Welcome INN, sought help from the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California (ACLU/SC), explaining that counseling and sharing food with homeless men, women, and children on a person-to-person basis is key to the group's ministry.
'It's important for each member to hand each homeless individual a meal and to pray and give thanks with that person,' Church said. 'That is what Welcome INN's charter says and that is what we're about.'
On May 8, the ACLU/SC filed suit against the California Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR), claiming Section 4321 - which spells out rules governing unlawful assembly -- is unconstitutionally broad and should be struck down because it interferes with the group's First
Amendment rights to freedom of expression and religion.
Under the settlement announced today, the DPR agrees not to enforce the regulation against anyone for three years. If they choose, officials can then work on a new, more specific regulation that will allow them to successfully manage gatherings at state parks, without impinging on constitutional rights, said Hector Villagra, director of the Orange County office of the ACLU/SC, who litigated the case.
'Park rangers ought to be able to reasonably manage gatherings at state parks,' Villagra said. 'But this rule was so broad that it threatened to significantly interfere with protected speech. Now, officials will have a chance to draft a new rule that respects the First Amendment while regulating park use in a measured way.'