George Graham

Religion and the Law



When Kim Davis broke the law, saying it conflicted with her Christian beliefs, the religious right rallied to her side. But when a retired Fort Lauderdale chef breaks the law because of motives I interpret as truly Christian, I don’t notice a nationwide uproar.

Davis, as you probably know, has become famous and is likely to become very rich (she already has a book deal) by refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in Kentucky. Arnold Abbott, a 90-year-old Fort Lauderdale retiree, makes few headlines when he is arrested for feeding the homeless.

For more than two decades, Abbott has served four-course meals to the drifters along Fort Lauderdale beach. This practice irritates local politicians. They keep passing laws to ban it.

Abbott has chosen to defy the ordinances. As a result, he keeps getting arrested (photo above).

He sued the city and won in 1999. But the local officials weren’t about to give up the fight. They keep on passing ordinances, which Abbott keeps defying

Fort Lauderdale is not the only city restricting aid to the homeless.

The Huffington Post reports that in the past two years, more than 30 American cities have introduced laws like the Fort Lauderdale ordinance. According to the article:

In Houston, groups need written consent to feed the homeless in public, or they face a $2,000 fine. Organizations in Columbia, South Carolina, must pay $150 for a permit more than two weeks in advance to feed the homeless in city parks.

In Orlando, an ordinance requires groups to get a permit to feed 25 or more people in parks in a downtown district. Groups are limited to two permits per year for each park. Since then, numerous activists have been arrested for violating the law. The arrests have drawn national attention, with some focusing on the contrast between the vacation destination of the Orlando area and the poverty in some surrounding areas.

According to the article, officials blame an invasion by homeless hordes – caused in part by destitute veterans who follow the sun to southern states. In the Huffingotn Post article, Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler is quoted as saying:

The parks have just been overrun and were inaccessible to locals and businesses.

Obviously, no decent human being – Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Atheist or whatever – can in good conscience deny succor to the destitute, especially to those who have risked their lives in service to their country.

But in communities like Fort Lauderdale, where tourism is such an important revenue earner, I can understand why local officials would want to protect the beaches and parks. This illustrates once again the dilemma faced by any democracy. There will always be conflicting interests to be resolved.

It seems to me that the greatest need in today’s America is for intelligent solutions to the myriad conflicts that arise in a complex society, instead of the increasingly divisive rhetoric with which self-serving politicians – including those who profess to be religious crusaders – afflict the bemused public.

Click for more on Abbott.

About the author


I am a Jamaican-born writer who has lived and worked in Canada and the United States. I live in Lakeland, Florida with my wife, Sandra, our three cats and two dogs. I like to play golf and enjoy our garden, even though it's a lot of work. Since retiring from newspaper reporting I've written a few books. I also write a monthly column for