Thursday, November 6, 2014

Criminalizing Charity: The Shame and Hypocrisy of a Christian Nation

by Nomad

Do city ordinances which forbid the feeding of the homeless violate the religious liberty of Christians? Why has there been so much more outcry about gay wedding cakes and yet barely a whisper when it comes to outlawing a core commandment of the Christian faith?

There's no denying that, from the time of the struggling Puritan settlers until this day, Judaic-Christian values have had a profound influence on American culture. Certainly more than any other religious teaching. This is true not merely in the so-called Bible Belt but in other regions and other aspects of American social life.

Of course, no fair minded person would say that America has no room for diversity of religious thought or that Christianity should be forced upon any citizen. Simply because a religion has an influence doesn't mean it has any more right to become the only faith or the national governmentally-endorsed religion. Yet, it is true that much of American morality has roots in this particular faith.

Despite what Justice Scalia has recently said, the government is constitutionally mandated to remain wholly neutral, neither supporting nor rejecting any religion. At the same time, according to past Supreme Court rulings, the government must also steer clear of interference with degrees of religious faith: from the devout to the unbeliever, all must be respected.

Even with the equally-strong belief in secularism (when it comes to religion and government), on a person level, the humanitarian principles found in Judaic-Christian teachings are generally considered the bedrock of American philosophy. 

Among those Christian unchallengables is the call to charity, a command to help those in need, to feed the hungry and to clothe the naked. This idea, of course, is not unique to Christianity but it is generally where Americans draw their inspiration for doing good works.  

After loving the Lord with the second uppermost command is that we "love our neighbors as we love ourselves." And the two points cannot be separate in the Christian theology as the Book of John observes:
If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion--how can God's love be in that person?
The Book of James one can find:
If one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?
In the Old Testament too one can find similar thoughts. Proverbs 14:31 for example:
Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.
And in the same book:
Whoever shuts their ears to the cry of the poor will also cry out and not be answered.
With regular outraged anguish about "religious liberty" the Far Right Christians seem strangely silence and disinterested when it comes to criminalizing one of Christianity's most noble articles of faith.

*   *   *
Only last month we featured a post about laws against feeding the homeless. Here's what it looked like in action when a 90-year-old man was arrested in Fort Lauderdale, Florida last weekend. 

Police removed Arnold Abbott, founder of the organization, Love Thy Neighbor, and charged him and four others with breaking new city regulations. 

The ordinance, adopted only last month, prohibits all feeding of the poor without the approval of property owners and in the absence of bathrooms. 

The property owners in this case was the city itself since the incident occurred in the city's Stranahan Park.

(Abbott pointed out that the city has meanwhile resisted putting in restrooms that can be used by the homeless for years now.)
It wouldn't be the first time that Abbott has had a run-in with the law on this subject. According to one source:
In 1999, Mr Abbott sued the City of Fort Lauderdale after he was banned from feeding the homeless on the beach and the court found that the rule was against the Constitution.
Fort Lauderdale is not the only city to pass such laws. Other cities like Seattle, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Dallas, and Philadelphia have moved in the same direction.
A lobbyist for the city told one newspaper:
"Whatever discourages feeding people on the streets is a positive thing." 
If the courts find Abbott and his friends guilty as charged, they will jailed for sixty days or forced to $500 per person. There's little doubt that they have broken law, as it was written.

The real question is why, in a nation which takes such pride in its Christian roots, should these laws have been written and implemented in the first place? Why are municipal governments able to create laws that deny the Christians their right to honor God with charitable works?