This Woman Was Fined for Feeding the Homeless — And Her Response Was Legendary

AP

Joan Cheever, a San Antonio woman, accused police of infringing on her religious liberty after authorities issued her a citation Tuesday for feeding the homeless. She may now face a penalty of up to $2,000.

"I have a legal right to do this," Cheever told police officer Mike Marrota, Texas Public Radio reported. When Marrota asked what she meant, Cheever dropped none other than the state's own Religious Freedom and Restoration Law. 

"I have a law degree, I gave them, memorandums of law telling them why they can't do this," Cheever told Mic.

RFRA laws drew national attention in recent weeks for their potential to allow private businesses to discriminate against LGBT Americans. Indiana became mired in controversy after Governor Mike Pence signed an RFRA into law there, while efforts in Arkansas or Maine were either abandoned or sent back to the drawing board. 

"I don't believe that the anti-gay use of RFRA was appropriate," she told Mic.

Cheever, who operates a nonprofit called The Chow Train, serves food to San Antonio's homeless population in Maverick Park every Tuesday. She said the officers who confronted her were not sympathetic to the argument.


"[The police] said 'Ma'am, if you want to pray, go to church,' she told Mic. "I was raised Catholic, I still consider myself Catholic. This is my church and this is how I pray." 

Officially, Cheever was cited for serving food without a permit. Previous reporting had said she had presented police with an expired permit. But Cheever told Mic her permit was up to date and provided a copy of what she showed the officers.  

"They didn't really know what to charge me with," she said. 

Source: Joan Cheever
Source: Joan Cheever

Officer Marrota advised that she could present her legal reasoning in court, where she is due to appear on June 23

Though politicians generally present religious freedom laws as a way to allow anyone to express their beliefs, they are often de facto excuses for discrimination against certain groups. Cheever, however, is taking the bill's de jure reasoning to heart.

We've seen this before. It's not the first time RFRA has been used in ways it probably wasn't intended for. Indiana's Bill Levin employed the extremely wide umbrella of religious freedom contained in his state's law to found The First Church of Cannabis in the state.

"I would argue that under RFRA, as long as you can show that reefer is part of your religious practices, you got a pretty good shot of getting off scot-free," lawyer Abdul-Hakim Shabazz wrote for Indy Politics.

It seems like Cheever took the idea for her own cause.

"With me and the chow train, I don't care if you're gay or straight, Jew Buddhist, Communist, Christian, the only thing we care about is, are you hungry," she told Mic

More broadly, using the logic of bad laws to advance good ends is an old trick. To protest the Supreme Court's decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., which allowed the company to deny health coverage for contraceptives on religious grounds, the Satanic Temple of New York began using the ruling to challenge "informed consent" abortion laws. 

Finding the silver linings in bad laws underscores the larger point that they shouldn't be passed in the first place. The real question is why Texas is more concerned with potentially protecting a right to discriminate   than feeding its homeless population. When Cheever does appear in court, it might be one worth asking.