PHOENIX, Ariz. — In the wake of Phoenix resident Dana Crow-Smith being told that she could not hand out free bottles of cold water to passersby without a permit during a “First Friday” festival in July 2012 as a means of exercising her Christian beliefs, officials with the City of Phoenix are insisting that Phoenix residents may not even give away free bottled water to passersby on private property without first paying a $350 application fee, a $30 annual license fee, and waiting an estimated four weeks for the application to be processed. In taking issue with the city’s Mobile Vending Ordinance, Rutherford Institute attorneys point out that the ordinance does not appear to have any exception for property owners acting on their own land or with the owner’s permission. Moreover, not only does the ordinance create a substantial burden on the religious exercise of countless churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious institutions and individuals who may be compelled to perform acts of charity on their own private property, including the giving away of food, water or clothing, but it would also prohibit children from operating lemonade stands and hinder residents from holding yard sales unless they have first paid for and secured a permit.
“This incident is about much more than whether a group of Christians can give away free bottles of water on a hot day without first having to jump through various and sundry bureaucratic hoops,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “What we’re really grappling with is a government bureaucracy so consumed with churning out laws, statutes, codes and regulations that it has forgotten its true purpose—which is, first and foremost, to protect our freedoms. If ever we allow government officials to lose sight of the fact that their job is to protect our freedoms, not restrict them—no matter what the issue is, whether it’s over our right to hand out water on a sidewalk, hold Bible studies in our homes, or simply criticize the government in Facebook posts—we will soon find ourselves on a slippery slope toward tyranny.”
Dana Crow-Smith, a Christian, was assembled with other Christians at a Phoenix “First Friday” festival in July 2012 to publicly express her faith and engage willing passersby in conversations about their religious beliefs. Having read a Bible passage referencing the importance of small acts of kindness such as offering water to the thirsty, Crow-Smith was moved to offer cold bottles of water to people at the Festival who were braving the desert’s scorching 112-degree heat. However, during the festival, Crow-Smith was approached by a Neighborhood Preservation Inspector who informed the group that they were violating the Phoenix City Code by giving away water without a vendor’s permit. City officials later defended their actions by claiming that Crow-Smith was standing on private property, rather than the public sidewalk, when distributing the free bottled water, which constituted a violation of the city’s Mobile Vending Ordinance. Rutherford Institute attorneys have responded by urging city officials to revise the City’s Ordinances to respect the constitutional rights of its residents, in addition to providing exemptions for property owners who wish to give items away on their own private property, or for volunteers who give away items on private property with the consent of the property owner. Institute attorneys have also called on city officials to ensure that Crow-Smith and others are not discriminated against or discouraged from distributing free water during September’s upcoming First Friday event.