Phoenix officials have until next Friday to apologize for the actions of a code enforcement officer after he stopped Christians from giving out water bottles to city festival participants on a day that reached 112 degrees.
A legal team that fights for religious and civil rights is also demanding a commitment that the city will no longer interfere with the Christian group’s acts of charity.
According to a letter to the city from the Rutherford Institute, the case developed in July during a “First Friday” festival when Dana Crow-Smith was giving “free bottles of cold water to passersby” on the public sidewalk “as a means of exercising her Christian beliefs.”
She “was moved” to offer the refreshment “to people at the festival who were braving the desert’s scorching 112-degree heat,” said the letter to city attorney Gary Verburg.
“According to Ms. Crow-Smith, her group was approached by Neighborhood Preservation Inspector Dwayne Grierson, who told them that they were violating the Phoenix City Code by giving away water without a vendor’s permit,” the letter explains. In fact, Grierson insisted that giving water away was “prohibited.”
The ban, however, violates several significant precedents, such as the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Arizona’s Freedom of Religious Exercise Act, Rutherford officials wrote.
A woman in the city attorney’s office declined to respond to WND’s questions, and phone calls requesting comment from the city’s public information office were not returned at the time of this report.
Rutherford’s president, John W. Whitehead, said in the letter the city’s actions are problematic, as they “not only violated Ms. Crow-Smith’s statutory and First Amendment rights to freely exercise her religion and Fourteenth Amendment due process rights,” they also were “unjustified under the city code itself.
“In fact, the Phoenix City Code prohibits only ‘vending’ on city sidewalks without a license. ‘Sidewalk vending’ is defined as ‘peddling, vending, selling, displaying, or offering for sale any item of tangible personal property or other thing of value upon a sidewalk of the city of Phoenix.’
“As these provisions are expressly limited to the sale of goods, they clearly do not apply to Ms. Crow-Smith’s act of giving away water. Thus, Inspector Grierson’s actions constitute a completely unjustified interference with an act of charity by a private citizen and a violation of Ms. Crow-Smith’s right to be free from interference with her fundamental liberty interests absent due process of law under the Fourteenth Amendment.”
As her gifts were prompted by her religious faith, the First Amendment and state Freedom of Religious Exercise Acts also are relevant.
Whitehead wrote that a resolution would include a written apology to the woman, written assurance that the city no longer will interfere with such acts of charity and training for city officials so they understand the First Amendment.
“It is beyond comprehension that local government officials would interfere with citizens performing such a basic act of charity as giving water to the thirty,” Whitehead wrote.
He said the alternative would be “legal action,” and a city response would be expected by the end of business Aug. 17.