Jewish World Review Dec. 20, 2002 / 15 Teves, 5763
Zoning out the Christmas spirit
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Ebenezer Scrooge is alive and well in Virginia Beach, Va. That's where government officials have launched a punitive legal campaign against a Christian-based charity that distributes toys and food to the poor.
For 16 years, the selfless volunteers of Mothers, Inc. have served needy children and seniors with an annual Thanksgiving turkey drive and Christmas toy drive. The organization also provides families with back-to-school supplies and helps locate shelter for the homeless throughout the rest of the year. Founder Brenda McCormick, an Air Force widow with two children who had seen lean times herself during the holidays, launched the charity to help families who fell through the cracks in other existing programs.
"Never assume," she says, that someone else is doing something to help.
McCormick manages her grass-roots distribution network from her home located a block from Virginia Beach's popular tourist strip. Donors drive to the house to drop off teddy bears and bikes and other Christmas bounties. The charity's headquarters are tucked into a residential district that allows a wide range of uses, including day-care centers, churches, boarding homes, and bed-and-breakfast inns.
As McCormick's non-profit group grew more successful, cranky neighbors complained about "excessive traffic" and the "littering" of donated packages on the front lawn.
If Santa Claus himself touched down on the sidewalk in his reindeer-drawn sleigh to help out with the Mothers, Inc. toy drive, these people would kvetch about the jingle bells making too much noise and Rudolph's glowing nose causing an eyesore.
City Scrooges cited McCormick for zoning law violations earlier this year and took her to court. They filed a misdemeanor criminal complaint charging her with illegally operating a charitable organization in a neighborhood. A judge dismissed the complaint in October, but the government meanies didn't give up. They've impugned her record-keeping and unjustly smeared her as a tax scofflaw. And this week, they sought a preliminary injunction to stop Mothers, Inc. from using McCormick's house as a drop-off spot for gifts.
Unbelievably, city zoning administrator Karen Lasley attacked the charity for placing a sign in the front yard alerting donors to its location. In court testimony, Lasley also complained about people unloading donations from cars and a table in the front yard with slices of bread on it and a sign reading ``free bread.''
The good news is that on Wednesday, a local judge denied the city's request to bar Mothers, Inc. from collecting toys before Christmas. The bad: McCormick will be hauled back into court on March 25, 2003 for trial and a hearing on a permanent injunction against the home-based charity.
McCormick is not alone. Good Samaritans across the country are being targeted by crotchety zoning czars. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty based in Washington, D.C., notes that in Franklin County, Ohio, Arthur Willhite has been similarly harassed by local zoning officials seeking to shut down his ministry delivering free bread, crackers, and cookies to the needy. The battle has been waged for two years, during which time Willhite and his family were forced to dump dozens of truckloads of food that they had painstakingly collected at Columbus area production and distribution centers.
No one argues that these home-based charities should be exempt from standard fire, public safety, traffic, and building use codes. But local governments, infected with callous NIMBYism, are increasingly using zoning rules to curtail many charitable groups' First Amendment rights to assemble and freely exercise their religious mission of ministering to the disadvantaged. It is shameful that both McCormick and Willhite are fighting for constitutional protection to serve the poor during this season of giving.
Yes, Virginia, there is a grinch.
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