A federal case involving two men who were cited for feeding homeless people has returned to court.
On Thursday morning, three federal judges from the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals listened to oral arguments in the case of Redlich v. City of St. Louis. A decision is expected in the ensuing months.
It is the latest step in a nearly four-year-long battle.
The tension dates back to Halloween 2018, when Pastor Ray Redlich and Chris Ohnimus, an assistant to Redlich who was formerly homeless, drove around St. Louis with a trunk full of bologna sandwiches.
For nearly four decades, Redlich, of the New Life Evangelistic Center, passed out food to the homeless, following the Bible's dictate to feed the hungry. Four to five days a week, around 225 nights a year, he passed out food. He handed out water on hot days, he handed out coffee on cold days and he prayed with those who wanted to pray.
But that night in 2018, a police officer stopped Redlich and Ohnimus as they gave out bologna sandwiches and water.
The officer told them they needed a permit and handed them a citation. He pointed to the city’s ordinance, which disallows the sale of “potentially hazardous food,” including meat, without a temporary food permit.
Over the past four years, the two sides have dueled back and forth over the legality of Redlich's and Ohnimus’ actions. What started as a spat about a citation has expanded into a federal court case over the First Amendment, aimed at the “free exercise of religion” and “the freedom of expression,” Dave Roland, director of litigation for the Freedom Center of Missouri, tells the RFT.
On December 4, 2018, Roland arrived in court to represent Redlich and Ohnimus. But city prosecutors chose not to move forward with the original citation.
Roland, though, saw a larger argument to make about religious freedom in America. He went on “offense,” he says. In January 2019, he sued the City of St. Louis in federal court, arguing that Redlich's and Ohnimus’ religious freedom had been violated.
“I would like the courts to affirm that, particularly, when you're talking about people fulfilling a religious duty — one that's clearly stated in their scriptures — there's just no legitimate basis for the government interfering in acts of charity,” Roland says. “Again, this is not something where there's any serious likelihood of anyone being harmed. So the court should absolutely rule in our favor and say that this is protected by the Constitution, that the city cannot interfere with this expressive act of worship.”
The City of St. Louis has continued to push back, arguing that its ordinance does not infringe on constitutional rights and it does not infringe on religious beliefs.
"People want to be protected by their governments from unsafe food and, at the same time, be free of officious meddling by governments in their personal affairs,” then-City Counselor Julian Bush said in a statement to the RFT in 2019. “It is sometimes difficult to draw the line between providing adequate protection and imposing too much red tape. If these sandwiches had poisoned those who consumed them, there would have been an outcry that there was insufficient regulation; if not, there is a protest of over-regulation.”
The City of St. Louis did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
But Roland said that the city’s regulations restrict Redlich's and Ohnimus' ability to feed the homeless. Receiving a permit requires them to plan a few days in advance, fill out an application and designate their whereabouts beforehand.
“We've always understood private charities are the best and most efficient ways of dealing with a lot of these societal problems,” Roland says. “And the idea that the government is going to step in and say, ‘You're not allowed to act on your own initiative to provide something that you have for the benefit of somebody who's in need’ — I think it is the most un-American thing I've ever heard.’”
In July 2021, the case went before the District Court, and the judge ruled in favor of the city. Roland appealed the decision to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, where it now stands. He hopes it will one day reach the U.S. Supreme Court.
Throughout the process, Redlich and Ohnimus have continued handing out bologna sandwiches.
“For now, they're going to continue serving people as they believe their faith requires them to do,” Roland says.