The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to hear arguments against enforcing a 2006 Orlando city ordinance that limits group public feeding in city parks to twice per year in any one area.
The ruling is the latest in a four-year back-and-forth battle between homeless advocates and city officials over an ordinance that was twice been rejected as unconstitutional before a three-judge panel in July overruled the original trial judge, asserting that the claims of unconstitutionality were without merit.
Glenn Katon, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney who represents First Vagabonds Church of God, tells The Florida Independent that he is hopeful a hearing before the full court will cement the original decision:
That [ordinance] went into effect in August of 2006, and we challenged it right away, filing the lawsuit in federal district court, and inserted six different legal claims as to why the ordinance should be invalidated. After lots of procedural wrangling, we went to trial in May of 2008, before Judge Presnell in Orlando, and several months later got a ruling in our favor on a couple of the claims that invalidated the ordinance.
The claims that we won on were that the ordinance is unconstitutional restriction on freedom of speech, because some of the plaintiffs were going out of their way to do these events in the main park in downtown Orlando and be very visible to raise awareness in the community of the problems of homelessness and hunger. So the judge said that was a speech activity, and that the ordinance unconstitutionally restricted it. The other claim we won on was for the other set of plaintiffs, which was a church for the homeless, where the court said there’s no rational basis for this ordinance, so therefore it restricts the free exercise of religion of the church.
We asked the full 11th Circuit to hear the case, saying basically that the two judge majority got it wrong, and there are some very important reasons why the full court should hear this case. It’s very rare that you get the full court to hear it, but we were pleased to find out yesterday that the court did grant it.
Other plaintiffs in the case include activists from Orlando Food Not Bombs, a local chapter of a national organization which focuses on issues relating to hunger and homelessness. Ben Markeson, speaking with TFI as an individual and not representing Orlando Food Not Bombs — whose decisions are made collectively by consensus — said the city considers homeless in the downtown area bad for business.
“They’re trying to get rid of homeless people, and trying to stop groups from sharing food with them,” Markeson says, “because they think it hinders business and growth and redevelopment, so they’re basically putting profits ahead of people.”
He says the city offered a fenced parking lot behind the Orlando Utility Commission building for groups wanting to feed the homeless, but likened the area — which has no running water and barbed-wire-tipped fencing, and requires a city worker to unlock a gate for entry — to an apartheid scenario.
“Basically what they are trying to do is stage an apartheid-like system in downtown Orlando based on socio-economic status,” he says. “I think that homeless people deserve access to the same public amenities, such as parks, as people who are more affluent. So I oppose the city’s attempt to institute discrimination and second-class citizenship against the homeless. We don’t use a dime of public money, and we don’t want anything from the city of Orlando except for them to stop trying to hinder us in sharing food with homeless people.”
With this latest decision, the appeals court ruling from July is effectively rendered unenforceable.
“The court vacated the appeals court ruling from July, so that opinion has no force or effect, so that means that the district courts ruling stands,” Katon added. “The city had said, ‘We won’t enforce the ordinance pending the petition for rehearing,’ but now even if the city wanted to, it can’t.