Comm'n of Texas v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496, 85 L. Ed. 971, 61 S. Ct. 643 (1941). In essence, the doctrines hold that a federal court should refrain from hearing constitutional challenges to state acts where the federal relief requested would impermissibly intrude on the right of a state to enforce its laws in its own courts unless the state action is deemed to be in bad faith, harassment or any other unusual circumstance that would call for equitable relief." Younger, 401 U.S. at 54.
Abstention is an important concept and should be applied where appropriate; however, it has no office where its application would deny persons valuable rights protected by the Constitution and laws of the United States. In this case, the plaintiffs claim they have a constitutional and statutorily protected right to feed the homeless of the District of Columbia. The actions of the District of Columbia's administrative body has denied the plaintiffs this right. What makes the District of Columbia's action particularly troubling is that in denying the plaintiffs the right to feed the city's homeless, it has done so without ever considering the plaintiffs' constitutionally and legislatively protected rights. The zoning administrator and the BZA have stated they have no jurisdiction to consider the plaintiffs' federally protected rights.
Because the BZA's decisions are directly appealable to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, there could be a considerable lapse of time before the plaintiffs' federal claims would be adjudicated. Since the plaintiffs lack the ability to stay the defendants' action, they would be deprived of their federally protected rights during the period the defendants' decision is being reviewed.
Plaintiffs are asserting substantial rights, and if they are correct, they are entitled not to be deprived of their enjoyment of such rights for any significant period of time. In addition, they are entitled to have those rights adjudicated by a body of competent jurisdiction at the earliest possible time. Certainly, if the city's zoning administrative authorities had jurisdiction to hear federal constitutional and legislative claims, the doctrine of abstention would need to be carefully considered. But as the record now stands, with the city's regulatory bodies simply ignoring these important rights, it is incumbent upon a federal court to accept jurisdiction and consider the very important questions presented.
Standard for Summary Judgment.
Summary judgment is appropriate where no material facts are in dispute and based on the undisputed facts, the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202, 106 S. Ct. 2505 (1986). To decide a summary judgment motion, a court must determine "whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law." Id. at 2512.
The moving party bears the burden of identifying those parts of the record that demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265, 106 S. Ct. 2548 (1986). Once the moving party demonstrates the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, the burden shifts to the opposing party to go beyond the pleadings to offer evidence of specific facts which create a genuine issue for trial. Id. The evidence produced must entitle the opposing party, assuming his version of events to be true, to judgment as a matter of law. General Communications Eng'g, Inc. v. Motorola Communications and Elecs., Inc., 421 F. Supp. 274, 279 (N.D. Cal. 1976) (quoting McGuire v. Columbia Broadcasting Sys., 399 F.2d 902, 905 (9th Cir. 1968). If the opposing party fails to make the requisite showing, the moving party is entitled to summary judgment. A fact is not material for the purposes of deciding a summary judgment motion if it is not necessary to the decision. See Johns Hopkins Univ. v. Hutton, 297 F. Supp. 1165, 1198 (D.C. Md. 1968), rev'd in part on other grounds, 422 F.2d 1124 (4th Cir. 1970). There are no material facts in dispute and this case is appropriate for summary judgment.
The plaintiffs maintain that ministering to the needy is a religious function rooted in the Bible, the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the Church's bylaws. Passages from the Church's bylaws and the Bible lend support to their position. For example, the bylaws define the Church's purpose as:
primarily but not limited to, promoting a spirit of Christian influence within the fellowship of the congregation and upon the community; to provide religious education by communicating the unchanging Gospel through teaching, preaching and ministering to all who are in need; to gather to worship God and share sacraments and teachings of our religious faith; to provide a Christian fellowship among our members and to the community at large; and to assist in charitable work of any nature deemed beneficial.
Western Presbyterian Church Bylaws, Art. I. The plaintiffs also point to passages in the Bible that support the view that the Church's ministry is not merely a matter of personal choice but is a requirement for spiritual redemption.
It must be noted that the concept of acts of charity as an essential part of religious worship is a central tenet of all major religions. For example, one of the five Pillars of Islam -- the fundamental ritual requirements of worship, including ritual prayer -- requires Muslims of sufficient means to give alms to the poor and other classes of recipients. Dictionary of Living Religions 347 (Keith Crim ed., 1981). Also, Hindus belonging to the Brahmin, Ksatriya, and Vaisya castes are required to fulfill five daily obligations of worship, one of which is making offerings to guests, symbolized by giving food to a priest or giving food or aid to the poor. Id. at 316. The concept finds its place in Judaism in the form of tendering to the poor clothing for the naked, food for the hungry, and benevolence to the needy. Id. at 387-88.
The plaintiffs have made a more than adequate showing that their feeding program at the Virginia Avenue location is motivated by sincere religious belief. Indeed, the defendants have not challenged the plaintiffs on this point. Accordingly, the Court finds the Church's feeding program to be religious conduct falling within the protections of the First Amendment and the RFRA.
The First Amendment prohibits laws that "substantially burden" the free exercise of religion. A "compelling interest" must exist before a state can impose a substantial burden on religious activities. In Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398, 10 L. Ed. 2d 965, 83 S. Ct. 1790 (1963), the Supreme Court held that the government had no compelling interest in denying the appellant unemployment benefits for refusing to work on her Sabbath day. It emphasized the strict limits imposed by the constitution on governmental regulation of religious conduct, stating that "no showing merely of a rational relationship to some colorable state interest would suffice; in this highly sensitive constitutional area, 'only the gravest abuses, endangering paramount interests, give occasion for permissible limitation.'" Id. at 406; (citing Thomas v. Collins, 323 U.S. 516, 530, 89 L. Ed. 430, 65 S. Ct. 315 (1945) reh'g denied, 323 U.S. 819, 89 L. Ed. 650, 65 S. Ct. 557 (1945)). The Court found the governmental interest advanced by the state -- protecting the viability of the unemployment benefits system by discouraging claims similar to the appellant's -- unpersuasive, suggesting merely a possibility of damage to the unemployment benefits system. 374 U.S. at 407. The Court further reasoned that even if the threat to the benefits system existed, it was incumbent upon the state to "demonstrate that no alternative forms of regulation would combat such abuses without infringing First Amendment rights." Id.
The rule in Sherbert was applied in Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, 32 L. Ed. 2d 15, 92 S. Ct. 1526 (1972), to exempt the Old Order Amish sect from a state high school compulsory attendance law on the grounds that the state's interest in the education of children could not outweigh the right to act in accordance with religious beliefs. The Court recognized that the Amish lifestyle stemmed from deeply held religious beliefs and so held that "only those interests of the highest order and not those otherwise served can overbalance legitimate claims to the free exercise of religion." Id. at 215.
The Supreme Court's decision in Employment Div., Dep't of Human Resources v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, 108 L. Ed. 2d 876, 110 S. Ct. 1595 (1990), cut back to a certain level the scope of the compelling interest test. In Smith, the Court held that the compelling interest test applied only where the challenged regulation directly discriminated against religious conduct. The compelling interest test had been previously applied to facially neutral laws in addition to those explicitly directed at religious conduct. In response to Smith, the Congress enacted the RFRA to restore the law regarding religious freedom to its state prior to the Supreme Court's decision in Smith. Section 3 of the RFRA essentially codifies the Sherbert and Yoder compelling interest test, providing:
(a) IN GENERAL -- Government shall not substantially burden a person's exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, except as provided in subsection (b).