HARRISBURG, Pa. — A Christian homeless ministry in Pennsylvania that was allegedly threatened with arrest this past fall for loitering on public property has reached an agreement with county officials to continue its outreach without penalty.
As previously reported, Isaiah 61 Ministries, which feeds the homeless in Harrisburg two days each week, says that it was ejected from the Dauphin County Courthouse parking lot in November and advised that members could be arrested for loitering if they continued their outreach at the location. The county had announced earlier this year that it planned to post “No Loitering” signs around the property.
“The County Commission has basically come out and said, ‘Look, you’ve got to move along and if you don’t, we’re going to begin arresting people who are trespassing on our property,’” Jeremy Dys, an attorney that is representing the ministry, told OneNewsNow.
Dys sent a letter to the county in response, outlining that the situation began in September when Deputy Chief Clerk J. Scott Burford informed the group that they must discontinue their activities at the courthouse. He said that Burford reiterated the penalty at a hearing on October 18th.
“Dauphin County’s actions toward Isaiah 61 and the other ministries engaged in religious ministry outside the county courthouse substantially burden those ministries’ religious exercise without a compelling government interest,” Dys, who works with the Texas-based Liberty Institute, wrote. “Moreover, in imposing an all out ban on ministry activity in a public area, Dauphin County has failed to employ the least restrictive means possible.”
But county officials told reporters that they had been speaking to Isaiah 61 Ministries about moving to another location because the homeless have allegedly been using the property to relieve themselves, and some workers have complained of harassment. Burford told the Patriot-News that patrons of the nearby bar have also been a problem, and that as of late November, there were still plans to post the “No Loitering” signs.
He said, however, that the county was working on drafting an agreement that will allow the ministry to use the parking lot, and according to the Liberty Institute, that agreement has now been accepted by all parties. Isaiah 61 Ministries, and other organizations, may use the parking lot two hours a night, provided that they leave the area clean and trash-free.
“The Dauphin County Commission did the right thing by recognizing the liberty of Isaiah 61 and other people of faith to exercise their faith in public by serving the poor, homeless, and elderly,” Dys stated in an update announcing the agreement. “Those who live out their faith in public by serving the poor, elderly, and homeless ought to be applauded by their government, not punished.”
Local counsel Randall Wegner of the Independence Law Center also expressed his satisfaction with the agreement.
“All too often, our leaders lose sight of our core liberties. It is good to see Dauphin County leaders provide more freedom to fix the problems around us, rather than exert more government control that would simply get in the way,” he stated.
The ministry is now again serving the homeless at the location, while the county has erected signs that will only be directed toward the homeless or bar patrons who were believed to have raised the initial concerns that sparked the controversy.