Religion

After Being Fined $125 a Day to Feed Homeless, Oakland Park Church Sues City

A Catholic church is suing the City of Oakland Park for infringing on its religious freedom by prohibiting its food-sharing operation in 2014. All Saints Catholic Mission on Powerline Road has racked up more than $10,000 in fines for dodging a cease-and-desist order and continuing its daily 2 p.m. feedings, says Father Bob Caudill, the priest and soup kitchen founder. 

The lawsuit was filed in June by attorney Richard Rosenbaum on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union. It contends serving food to poor and homeless people is religiously mandated at All Saints. This makes the city's zoning ordinance and $125 daily fines a violation of the Florida Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was passed in 1998

"Helping the poor is part of our religious requirement," Caudill explains.  "We need a new roof, our pews don't match, and nothing here is high-scale, but most of our budget—I'd say 75 percent— goes to the soup kitchen. It's our top priority."

Oakland Park attorneys did not return a New Times message seeking comment about the case. Earlier this month, the city requested the case be dismissed, arguing the zoning ordinance "does not prohibit religious conduct, nor does it compel conduct prohibited by the religion."

After complaints by business owners and residents about the homeless who frequent the soup kitchen, the City passed a 2014 zoning ordinance that prohibited "parish houses" — defined as a "room or building associated with a church...for charitable use." In response, Caudill moved the kitchen from a separate building (his "parish house") into the church building. Now food is served at the altar. The poor and homeless folks sit in the pews to eat.

Last November, Caudill was ordered to stop the feedings. The fine was initially $500 per day but has been reduced to $125. Caudill says he has also accrued nearly $19,000 in legal fees.

"The good news is that [the City] hasn't tried to collect [the fines]," Caudill says. "They could put a lien on the property and seize it. I've never heard of them seizing a church, but it's always possible."

According to the complaint, "The ordinance and its enforcement has had a chilling effect upon the continuing exercise of [Caudill's] firmly held religious and expressive beliefs... [it] constitutes a substantial burden on [Caudill] and All Saints exercise of religious freedoms and neither furthers a compelling interest nor does it use the least restrictive means of furthering whatever interest the City may advance."

In the meantime, as whispers continue of the U.S. Department of Justice coming in to investigate violations of federal protections on religious freedom, Caudill remains defiant. He feeds nearly 100 to 200 people every day at 2 p.m., refuses to pay the fines, and holds vigils and protests at commission meetings and city leaders' homes. 

"We've had issues in the past, " Caudill says, "but this has been the biggest effort to get rid of us."
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Jess Swanson is a staff writer at New Times. Born and raised in Miami, she graduated from the University of Miami’s School of Communication and wrote briefly for the student newspaper until realizing her true calling: pissing off fraternity brothers by reporting about their parties on her crime blog. Especially gifted in jumping rope and solving Rubik’s cubes, she also holds the title for longest stint as an unpaid intern in New Times history. She left the Magic City for New York to earn her master’s degree from Columbia University School of Journalism, where she spent a year profiling circumcised men who were trying to regrow their foreskins for a story that ultimately won the John Horgan Award for Critical Science Journalism. Terrified by pizza rats and arctic temperatures, she quickly returned to her natural habitat.
Contact: Jess Swanson