More than 100 people attended a city commission meeting Monday night to discuss limits on providing meals and shelter to the homeless.
The city currently limits places of religious assembly to serving 20 meals a day and requires them to have a permit.
But Marion Radson, the city attorney, said that no religious assemblies have permits to serve food, meaning those assemblies that are serving to the homeless are operating illegally.
“The city knows these laws are on the books but chooses not to enforce them,” Mayor Pegeen Hanrahan said.
Some of those in attendance wore stickers that read “#131” to represent how many meals could be served to homeless by soup kitchens.
“Give us a chance before you say we can’t,” said Pastor Elder J.W. Honeysucker of Greater Fort Clarke Missionary Baptist Church.
“Don’t cut us off because if you do, that’s what leads to the robberies, the burglaries – when they can’t eat,” he said.
Former Mayor Mark Goldstein said that while he has spent his life caring for his inner city neighborhood, Gainesville’s homeless frequently trespass on campus.
“I consider them transients, parolees and convicts,” Goldstein said.
John Stokes, a local attorney, said he believed the limit on religious assemblies violates the First Amendment right to freedom of religion.
However, Stephanie Marchman of the city attorney’s office said federal courts have upheld local governments’ right to regulate homeless shelters.
Current law also restricts food distribution from religious assemblies within 2,000 feet of the UF campus.
The rule prevents many of the churches and synagogues popular among students from serving food to the homeless.
The committee recommended restricting religious assemblies within residential zones to its current limit of 20 meals a day but making an exception between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., during which times they would be allowed to serve unlimited food.
Currently, there is no limit on food served to-go.
If the city does change its regulations, Alachua County law still will limit religious assemblies to serving 25 meals a day, according to City Planning Manager Ralph Hilliard.