If you’ve watched the news or been on social media at all this past week, you’ve by now probably heard that, along with two other ministers, 90-year-old WWII veteran Arnold Abbot, was arrested last week in Fort Lauderdale, FL for feeding the homeless, which he has done for over 20 years through his organization Love Thy Neighbor.
Created in 1991 as a tribute to his wife, LTN provides, among other things food, shelter, and counseling to Broward County’s substantial homeless population. The non-profit, interfaith organization cites as its motivation “two very simple concepts. We believe that ‘We are out brothers keeper’ and we should ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself.’” Under the new ordinance, Abbot and his co-conspirators face up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.
Although the city has received much deserved criticism we also wonder why the ordinance, and Abbot’s arrest for allegedly violating it, haven’t been portrayed in terms of religious freedom. The whole situation has been labeled as silly at best and coldhearted at worst. Nicki Grossman, who runs the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau, told the Sun Sentinel that she has received emails telling her that the city “has no heart.” But, at least as far as we can tell, it seems that virtually no one has pulled out the First Amendment in defense of Arnold Abbot.
We draw attention to this because, as RD has frequently noted, appeals to “religious freedom” have become commonplace in the face of perceived government overreach. Indeed, the weekend before last, thousands gathered at Grace Community Church in Houston for I Stand Sunday to draw attention to religious freedom in the face of perceived political intimidation. The immediate cause of the rally was the Houston mayor’s office’s recent subpoenaing of the sermons of five area pastors who supported a petition on a ballot measure to repeal an equal rights ordinance. The speakers at the rally widely interpreted that action—which, it is important to note, has since been limited—as a direct assault on their religious beliefs and violation of their freedom to practice them. Tony Perkins, president of the ultra-conservative Family Research Council, said that the mayor’s office was “trying to silence the voices of the churches and the pastors.”
Although we agree that the mayor’s office overreached, no one in Houston was or has been arrested, or even silenced. A rally is, by definition, a pretty loud, visible event, and if anything it draws attention to the fact that the freedom to gather and worship as one pleases is rather healthy in this country. And yet, when Arnold Abbot actually gets arrested for doing what he thinks his religion requires him to do, it’s unfortunate but not, for these same activists, a matter of religious freedom, despite the fact that Abbot seems to think it is. Commenting on the affair, Abbot has said, “It’s our right to feed people, it’s our First Amendment right and I believe in the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, and we should be allowed to feed our fellow man.” It’s hard to find a stronger—and more convincing—appeal to religious freedom and duty.
That there’s been no significant attempt to paint Abbot’s arrest as a First Amendment issue draws attention to the selective nature of appeals to religious freedom, whatever the various legal merits of such claims. Unfortunately, it seems that for many, opposition to equal rights falls under the category of “religious freedom,” while being arrested for caring for the “least of these” (Matthew 25:45) does not. All of which goes to show, it seems, that many of the contemporary appeals to religious freedom have more to do with politics than faithfulness.