17 April 2015

Ticketing Good Samaritans - or why the Church doesn't do more to help the poor

On Tuesday evening, 14 April 2015, Joan Cheever, a chef in San Antonio, Texas, set out  to offer food to those without homes and those without food - including the working poor - in the seventh largest city in the United States of America and even established a 501(c)3 nonprofit food truck - The Chow Train - to assist in these efforts. All of this is done without funding from any branch of government.

Despite having done this for the past ten years, Cheever was ticketed and given a fine of $2,000 for - get this - "serving – people – without a permit":
Officer Marrota: So you can take it to court and tell the judge exactly what you are telling me.

Cheever: So what’s the citation for?

Officer Marrota: For serving – people – without a permit. You are not allowed to serve. That is the city of San Antonio.

Cheever: So any Good Samaritan that offers food for people that are in need or are homeless...

Officer Marrota: That’s great. You are a Good Samaritan...

Cheever: No, but…

SAPD Officer Marrota: It’s very nice that you are doing that. However…

Cheever: Do Good Samaritans get tickets in San Antonio?

Officer Marrota: Yes [more].
Notice the difficulty Officer Marrota seems to have had in even referring to the poor as "people." This especially sad and troubling for one sworn to protecting the people.

On The Chow Train's Facebook page, Cheever provided more information into her questions about the ticket and fine:
When I talked to the health department and said WE--THE CHOW TRAIN-- are the caterers of the poor, they said, that's ridiculous. They don't have a caterer. When I said, what is the difference betw[een] me bringing food into the park vs. the age old tradition of families camping out and cooking AND serving food on Easter Sunday, they told me -- those people are their friends and family. I said the peeps are MY FRIENDS and I see them on a more regular basis than my own family. I asked where in the HEALTH CODE does it define friends and family. The health dept. said don't be ridiculous Ms. Cheever. They are NOT your friends and they are NOT your family. And they hung up on me. Let me be very clear: I AM THE CATERER to the homeless AND working poor of this city. I am not a criminal. My nonprofit is made up of GOOD SAMARITANS. It is bad enough and horrible enough to criminalize the poor. Now to call Good Samaritans criminals [more]?
This, government interference, is - as I've said before - no small part of why the Church does not do more to help the poor (and here and here).

To her good credit, Cheever refusing to stop feeding the hungry and will argue her case on court under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. We will, after all, be judged on how we responded to those in need around us. Remember Jesus' words to those welcomed into the kingdom of heaven: "For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me" (Matthew 25:35). Remember, too, his words to those cast out: "For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43a stranger and you gave me no welcome" (Matthew 25:42-43).

If you would like to support the laudable efforts of The Chow Train, you make a donation here.


  1. Fr. Daren,
    I'm a political science major. I immediately see some problems with her case. I'm in a class right now that's dissecting and learning about all laws relating to religious freedom. Here is the text of the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA, as it's called in legal circles.

    A government agency may not substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion.
    (b) Subsection (a) does not apply if the government agency demonstrates that the application of the burden to the person:
    (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and
    (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.

    People hear the full name of RFRA and think “Oh! Good! Protection of religious freedom!” Actually, no. RFRA just sets out the criteria that the government has to meet to violate someone's religious freedom.

    All the state would have to do to win this case is prove that there is a compelling governmental interest in ensuring the health and safety of people eating food from vendor's trucks, and that requiring vendors to have a permit is the best way to accomplish that.

    Even if the Chow Train could demonstrate that acquiring a vendor's permit was a 'substantial burden,' and that it outweighs a city's need to ensure the safety of its citizens we really can't assume they'll win.

    If you feel particularly inclined to read up on such things, I'd recommend reading
    City of Boerne vs. Flores, and
    Employment Division vs. Smith

    1. Thanks for the case recommendations! I am interesting in learning about this situation.

      I think, though, that Cheever might be able to make a case that this is either not the least restrictive means possible or that the government doesn't even have a compelling interest in this given the health department's response about families cooking in the park.

  2. Those two cases demonstrate the development of the different legal tests that I predict will be applied in this case.

    I personally don't think she can make the argument that she's exempt from health standards for vendors, because how she distributes food is much more similar to a vendor, than a family having a cookout in the park.

    I wish her luck, though, and I hope that she has really good lawyers.

    I hope she tries to recruit Douglas Laycock- oddly enough, he's an atheist, but he specializes in religious freedom and remedy law. We skyped with him in class a couple of days ago, and briefs/notes from cases he's argued make up 1/5 of our class textbook.