By Pat Loeb
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter appeared in federal court this morning to defend the ban he has imposed on outdoor feeding programs.
The ban is being challenged on constitutional grounds by religious groups who feed the homeless in center city parks.
The groups have asked for an injunction against the ban, on the grounds that barring them from publicly feeding the homeless interferes with their free exercise of religion.
Mayor Nutter testified for more than an hour and a half, with many emotional references to his own concern for homeless people.
His central message, as he told reporters afterward, is that outdoor feeding does not address the underlying problems of homeless people. He says he would like to move all food service indoors.
“What we’re trying to do is provide those additional services beyond the meal, beyond the sandwich, in a dignified manner, not in 90-degree heat like we had last week and not in 10-degree cold.”
The plaintiffs have testifed there is not sufficient indoor space to accomodate the people they feed, and that the city has not established a system to provide those additional services.
The groups have asked the judge for an injunction on the grounds the feeding ban interferes with their religious beliefs.
Lead plaintiff Brian Jenkins of the “Chosen 300” Ministry says feeding the hungry is fundamental to most religions.
“We are doing our services based upon our religious faith, and it’s our conviction,” he said.
Jenkins and others choked up on the stand at times as they talked about the importance of their mission.
But, witnesses for the city, including deputy mayor Mike DiBerardinis and Basilica rector Monsignor Arthur Rogers, testified that the feeding programs create waste that strains city services and imposes on neighbors.
City solicitors told the judge the groups need not stop feeding the homeless altogether — that they’ve been offered alternate space at City Hall.
The judge, who had earlier indicated he would rule this afternoon on the matter, has said he will take more time.