Activists file suit against recent Las Vegas homeless ordinance
LAS VEGAS (AP) – Anti-hunger activists and civil rights advocates filed suit Wednesday to strike down an ordinance that makes it illegal to feed homeless people in city parks.
The statute, one of the first in the nation to bar feeding the poor, violates constitutional rights to free speech, free exercise of religion, free assembly, due process of law and equal protection under the law, according to a complaint filed in U.S. District Court by the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of five activists and the local chapter of Food Not Bombs, a national organization that describe its objective as “sharing free vegetarian food with hungry people and protesting war and poverty.” The group and its members regularly served meals to homeless people in a Las Vegas park, angering some neighbors and sparking the debate that led to the recently enacted ordinance.
Lee Rowland, public advocate for the ACLU of Nevada called the ordinance “immoral” and “embarrassing for the city.” She said its language violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment by “requiring people to make a snap judgment about others based on how they look,” she said.
The ordinance passed July 19 prohibits “providing food or meals to the indigent for free or for a nominal fee” in a city park and defines indigent as a person whom a reasonable ordinary person would believe to be entitled to county public assistance.
Rowland also criticized the law on First Amendment grounds.
“It is restricting people freedom of speech and freedom to assemble in a historically crucial public place, a public park. We want to ensure that the right of all people to access that space is not chipped away,” she said.
City attorney Brad Jerbic said he had not seen the lawsuit but planned to the defend the ordinance and the City Council, which is named in the complaint along with Mayor Oscar Goodman, City Manager Douglas Selby and Las Vegas police and city marshals.
Jerbic said the ordinance was aimed at the advocates’ activities in Huntington Park near downtown Las Vegas. Their mobile meals program drew homeless people away from shelters and health providers, he said.
“The shelters provide food, beds, counseling services and doctors. What this is doing is, it’s pulling them away from services and abandoning them in these parks,” he said.
On Monday, Beth Monk, a KKLZ-FM radio morning show personality, was the first person to receive a summons under the new law, a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of $1,000 and six months in jail. Six other people were issued summonses and three people were arrested.