Broward News

"Homeless Hate Laws" in Broward Prompt Talk That the Department of Justice Is Investigating

For years, a battle has brewed between the city of Oakland Park and All Saints, a Catholic church that is independent of the archdiocese and also operates a soup kitchen. Business owners and residents in the city have complained about the homeless people who patronize the soup kitchen, saying they loiter and defecate on property.

The city passed a zoning ordinance in 2014 that specifically prohibited “parish houses” — defined as a “room or building associated with a church… for charitable use.” Now several people close to the matter are saying that the Department of Justice has been asked to investigate the zoning law because it violates federal protections on religious freedom and that the DOJ may also be looking at similar issues in other cities, including Fort Lauderdale.

In response to the Oakland Park ordinance, All Saints church leader Father Bob Caudill moved his kitchen from a separate building (his "parish house") into his church building.  The church was ordered to shut down its feeding operation. But Caudill refused.

Renee Shrout, city clerk in Oakland Park, stresses that the church was not being told to stop operating, but to stop its feeding because such activity does not comply with the zoning restrictions. She said the daily fines were initially $500 per day but had been reduced to $125. 

Caudill's attorney, Richard Rosenbaum, says he is representing All Saints on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union. Rosenbaum says he is currently "getting ready to file an injunction to stop the city from enforcing its unconstitutional ordinance that stops the pastor from feeding the homeless." He says he is fighting an order of enforcement dated March 17, which includes the $125-per-day charges, bringing All Saints' charges up to $4,500 in fines. The pastor in the fall said he had also racked up $19,000 in legal fees. 

Caudill remains defiant. "We have the ACLU on our side," he says. "[The city is] fining me up! I don't care. What are they going to do? Take me to jail or seize my property? I've never heard of them seizing a church, but I guess it's possible." 

Yesterday, people affiliated with All Saints protested the city of Oakland Park by interrupting a culinary event at city hall and staging a protest they called "Jesus and the Tax Collectors."

Parishioner Arthur Carl Kanev explains that Jesus loved "the injured, the crippled, the throwaways of society. Jews who were employed by Romans as tax collectors were considered the lowest on Earth. Everybody hated them — so Jesus loved them." 

In a press release announcing yesterday's protest, Kanev asserted that "The US Justice Department has decided to pursue an investigation of this matter in more depth." Pressed about that, both Caudill and Rosenbaum said that the case had been reported to federal officials along with concerns about similar conflicts in Broward, including Fort Lauderdale's anti-homeless ordinances. "It's a private investigation. I responded to an email," Caudill said.

A source familiar with the matter was more cautious, saying it was unclear whether a formal investigation would be opened. A DOJ spokesperson did not respond to a message this week.

Any investigation could center on the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), a federal law passed in 2000 designed to protect religious institutions from discrimination in zoning laws. It states that, except in certain instances, "No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution." 

It was Fort Lauderdale's ordinances, Kanev says, that inspired other cities to try to get rid of their homeless populations through local legislation. "That started this whole insanity. It was like vultures feeding." 

Fort Lauderdale made international headlines in 2014 when it passed several city ordinances, which critics called "homeless hate laws," designed to keep homeless people away from parks and businesses. The ordinances cracked down on panhandling and sleeping on city property, and gave police authority to confiscate homeless people's belongings. The most well-known ordinance prevented people from sharing food outdoors unless certain conditions were met — such as having sinks and portable toilets, thus making most charitable food sharings almost impossible. A then-90-year-old man, Arnold Abbott, defied the law and continued to feed the needy. In a confrontation caught on camera, he was cited by police. The footage went viral and created bad publicity for Fort Lauderdale. 

Abbott was one of three clergymen cited for violating Fort Lauderdale's food-sharing ordinance. He runs a charity called Love Thy Neighbor. Also cited: Mark Sims of St. Mary Magdalene Episcopal Church in Coral Springs, and Pastor Dwayne Black of the Sanctuary Church.  

Lawyers for those men say that the case against Black was dismissed. They say that Sims and Abbott's cases were won on the grounds that they were exercising their right to freedom of religion by feeding the poor — but that the city has appealed the ruling on the grounds that the feeding could still be regulated to some degree. As the cases continue to wind through court, the attorneys on both sides have been working to fashion an alternate ordinance. 

Lawyer Phyllis Pritcher, who represented Black, said that as a small business owner herself, "I understand that when [homeless] people are laying on the sidewalk, people tend not to want to shop there." She hoped to see compromise, she said, but the city was "pretty much sticking to these crazy things — like requiring groups with more than six people to apply for a permit in 30 days, to have washing stations, to have to have bathrooms. As [attorney] Bruce Rogow succinctly pointed out: What if I want to have a family picnic of 20 people? Why are [homeless advocates] held to a higher standard?" 

Rogow, who represents Sims, says that "The city has spent eight or nine months trying to develop an ordinance that it thinks will meet its needs and still allow for the exercise of peoples' religious rights and feeding the poor. But we're not satisfied." He called the city's new proposed versions "draconian, extensive, and burdensome." He said the city was still trying to place restrictions on things like the temperature of the food that could be served. He called it "bureaucratic overkill... It's ridiculous."  

Rogow says feedings could be managed by enforcing simple ordinances already on the books, like litter laws. "I don't understand why the city would expend its resources on this." The city, he surmised, seems to think that visitors should "not be exposed to the underside of life, which is poor and hungry people. I think it's important they do see it." 

The pending cases against Sims and Abbott, he says, keep getting stalled in court. "I don't think they have the heart to prosecute them."  

Rogow, Pritcher, and Shrout all said they had no knowledge of any Department of Justice investigation.

Fort Lauderdale spokesperson Chaz Adams did not return a phone call seeking comment. 

Kanev said Caudill is a "saint" and that if his church closes, "hundreds of hungry, homeless people will be roaming the streets [and] the crime rate would go up immeasurably... Every nickel goes to his ministry — to feed and give love to homeless and needy people. Without him, these people would be hungry, and starved of love. He gives them love. Nobody else will love them."

(Kanev in 2004 was extradited to Costa Rica for allegedly drugging and having sex with young girls there. He reportedly admitted to the sex — prostitution is legal in the country — on an episode of 20/20. He claims now that the sexual charges were ultimately dismissed and "I was convicted of supplying marijuana against the public health" for giving away two joints. He says he was sentenced to 16 years but because he had cancer, in 2011, he was granted an international treaty transfer that allowed him to be released on parole and get treatment in America.) 

Here are documents showing that All Saints was found in violation of zoning and fined: