War on churches: Pennsylvania town cracks down on feeding the homeless

A lot of powerful people in this country think it’s really important to put religion in its place. They reduce the free exercise of religion to the freedom of worship, and they argue that faith should be strictly private. They also believe that a church building must be exclusively for worship and not for any of the other aspects of people living out their faith.

Pottstown, Pennsylvania, is a working-class town of 20,000 between Philadelphia and Reading. It has more than its share of poverty, which is why Christ Episcopal Church and Mission First Church run robust aid programs, especially during and after the pandemic. The churches give out free meals to the public once a week, provide counseling and mental health support, and hand out groceries, toiletries, and other staples for free.

But the Pottstown government is having none of it. According to local law, a church building can be used only for worship and “those accessory activities as are customarily associated” with worship. In June, a zoning officer sent a violation notice instructing the churches that they must cease their good deeds or go through the zoning hearing board to seek a variance.

“Civil action will commence with the Districts Justice if these violations are not corrected,” the zoning officer wrote in a letter.

Local governments have a long and storied history of stopping religious congregations from serving the poor. Mike Bloomberg wouldn’t let a synagogue donate bagels to homeless shelters. Dozens of other cities have outlawed feeding the homeless.

Pottstown’s actions against the churches are particularly striking because they don’t even involve a safety or food regulation. Instead, the town is attempting to weaponize the very definition of what a church building is in order to prevent worshippers from using it to follow the command of Jesus Christ: “When I was hungry, you fed me.”

“It is the opinion of this office that the use of the property has changed and, by definition, is more than that of a Church,” the zoning officer wrote. He included the zoning code’s definition of a church: “A building wherein persons assemble regularly for religious worship and that is used only for such purposes and for those accessory activities as are customarily associated therewith.”

It’s a horribly crimped view of what a church is, and it’s a view the churches’ leaders reject.

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Author: HP McLovincraft

Seeker of rabbit holes. Pessimist. Libertine. Contrarian. Your huckleberry. Possibly true tales of sanity-blasting horror also known as abject reality. Prepare yourself. Veteran of a thousand psychic wars. I have seen the fnords. Deplatformed on Tumblr and Twitter.

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