City Bans Feeding and Housing Strays

Surfside, North Carolina — Surfside residents are up in arms over the city’s new ordinance which makes it illegal to provide food or shelter to stray dogs and cats. The ordinance was passed after a study showed that Surfside was attracting an inordinate number of strays from other communities which had similar bans already in place. The study estimated that there were upwards of 1,200 stray cats and dogs in and around Surfside.

“Look, I love dogs and cats, but strays create too many problems for the community.” said Mayor Tom Wolf. “If you see a stray, please call the city, and we’ll take care of it.”

Before the ban was enacted, groups like the Humane Society and a number of private citizens provided food and temporary shelter to wandering strays. Often they would see the strays in need, pick them up off the streets, and find them a permanent home. Jennifer Lamb, a thirty-year resident of Surfside, would convert her back porch into a temporary shelter to house strays during the winter months.

“Even in Surfside you can freeze to death in the winter without shelter. Since I had the space, I felt called to use it,” explained Ms. Lamb. “Why should these strays be left to die in the elements if there are people in the community willing to give them food and shelter?”

In 2014, some of Ms. Lamb’s neighbors called the city to complain about the influx of strays in their neighborhood. They complained about the noise and expressed feeling unsafe with strays in the area.

“I pay a lot of taxes to live in Surfside, taxes that pay for the animal shelter and that pay to make our community more attractive to tourists. If Surfside becomes a mecca for strays, I’m out of here, and I imagine the tourists will be too.” said Don Voisin.

Surfside officials say that they have a full complement of stray support services, including a public shelter, and that there is no need for private groups and citizens to get involved. One local church, however, disagrees and calls the City’s services inadequate.

“Strays will always be with us.” said the Reverend Luke Chalereux of the local Trinity Episcopal Church. Trinity regularly makes its narthex available for strays during the winter months. Last January, the City issued Trinity a building code citation for housing strays in a building that lacked sprinklers. The citation was dismissed after Judge Adam Savant found that strays faced a greater risk of freezing to death than burning to death in a building without sprinklers.

“We have over a thousand strays in Surfside, more than the City could ever deal with, and we provide them with much greater care, because we believe God created them and has called us to love them.”

When asked whether the church would be discontinuing its ministry to strays or challenging it in court, Chalereux said, “maybe this is a case where we ought to obey God rather than man.”

*This is satire. If it were true, thousands of Americans would likely be up in arms in defense of stray animals and the right of private groups and individuals to care for them. Fortunately for strays, municipalities are not, to my knowledge, moving to ban the ability to house and feed stray animals. Tragically, however, an increasing number of municipalities are moving to restrict or even prohibit churches and other ministries from providing shelter and care to the homeless men, women, and children in their community. Municipalities are using their zoning codes, building codes, and nuisance ordinances to prohibit private groups from caring for the “least of these.” They are criminalizing homelessness, oppressing the destitute and denying ministries the freedom to exercise their faith in service of their fellow man. Churches, some say, can’t offer their buildings as a sanctuary from the elements. Others say they can’t let a single mom and her child find overnight refuge in an unsprinklered church building.

The good news is that there are a growing number of ministries willing to stand in the gap for the homeless and to advocate for their interests. Ministries are stepping up to challenge municipal overreach in accordance with federal laws such as the Eight Amendment, the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act, and the Fair Housing Act. As the cold months approach, consider the homeless in your area and what your church could do to serve them. And should you face municipal opposition, please contact us at Mauck & Baker, a Christian law firm in Chicago devoted to ensuring people are free to serve God and their neighbor.