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An Orange County religious nonprofit that was penalized and threatened with criminal prosecution by Santa Ana for feeding homeless people now has the support of the U.S. Department of Justice in its ongoing legal battle with the city.

After Santa Ana officials ordered the nonprofit, Micah’s Way, to stop distributing food and drinks at its resource center — arguing that doing so violated the municipal code — the city denied its certificate of occupancy and warned it could be fined and prosecuted. That drew a lawsuit from Micah’s Way this year claiming that the city’s actions infringed on the nonprofit’s right to religious exercise.

The Justice Department agreed, saying the Christian organization’s distribution of food and beverages to homeless people “is an integral part of its religious exercise,” according to a statement of interest filed Tuesday in response to the city’s motion to dismiss the suit.

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Santa Ana’s denial of the occupancy license for the Micah’s Way resource center also placed a “substantial burden” on the organization’s religious expression in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which bars governments from imposing land use rules that interfere with religious exercise, the department said.

“Under the City’s demands, [Micah’s Way] would be completely prohibited at its current location from distributing food and beverages to homeless individuals who come to its doors, a service that [Micah’s Way] believes it has a ‘religious duty’ to perform,” the Justice Department said.

“Many faith-based organizations across the country are on the front lines serving the needs of people experiencing homelessness,” Assistant Atty. Gen. Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a statement. “The Justice Department is committed to enforcing federal civil rights laws to ensure that all religious groups can freely exercise their religious beliefs.”

Micah’s Way, which has been operating since 2005, said in its complaint that Santa Ana began to warn it in fall 2021 that providing food and beverages out of its resource center was in violation of the municipal code.

After the city issued Micah’s Way an administrative citation and told it to obtain a certificate of occupancy, the organization applied for the certificate but was denied on the basis of zoning restrictions, according to the complaint.

Micah’s Way applied for the certificate a second time but was again denied last summer on the grounds that its food distribution practices were not permitted in the “professional district” that the resource center occupied.

In its motion to dismiss, the city said the food distribution was not a religious activity “but was merely an incidental use of minor significance” and argued that barring the organization from giving out food and beverages did not violate federal law.

In a statement to The Times, Santa Ana officials said the city “fully supports the expression of religious beliefs as well as helping those in need, as shown by the operation of our 200-bed homeless navigation center, hosting the County of Orange’s homeless shelter, and funding homeless outreach teams.”

Micah’s Way improperly used its administrative building to hand out food, “resulting in multiple complaints from residents” in the surrounding neighborhood, city officials alleged.

“Micah’s Way has not shown that the City has placed a substantial burden on its religious exercise,” the city said.

The motion to dismiss is set to be heard June 5.

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