Monday, September 28, 2009

Does State Health Statute Make Communion Illegal?

"On a regular basis, every Sunday, we have communion," said Reverend Joel Neubauer, pastor of Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church on Washington Street, at a meeting of the faith-based community concerned with state laws regulating charitable food distribution. "People bring wine from home. They bake bread at home and bring it to church for communion. We drink out of the same cup. Now I'm hearing that it's an illegal act?"

Attorney Dan Livingston, part of the law firm defending Food Not Bombs against a citation for distributing food without a license, confirmed the worse.

"Technically, it's illegal," Livingston said. "But whether the health department would cite you is another question."

"We're basically not being able to practice our faith because or what they're saying," Reverend R. Maureen Hawksley of St. Paul Lutheran Church said.

"You could make that argument," Livingston agreed.

The group included concerned members of the Middletown clergy, members of the health care community, and other concerned residents. They gathered because they are alarmed by a recent strict adherence by the city Health Department to a state statute prohibiting any food not prepared in a licensed kitchen from being served to the public.

The meeting was held Monday night at the St. Vincent dePaul Soup Kitchen on Main Street where director Ron Krom served as host, and provided a historical context for the meeting. He explained that indeed, state statute prohibits any food not prepared in a licensed kitchen, from being served to the public on a regular basis.

This statute was cited by city health department officials when they arrested Food Not Bombs members for sharing food with the public in a regular Sunday meal on the corner of Main and Liberty Streets.

Krom noted the similarity between what Food Not Bombs was doing and what his organization did every Sunday at dinner when they served food prepared and donated by community members. And when he testified to the fact at a state hearing, he found himself the subject of a Health Department citation.

"If I don't comply," he explained. "They have threatened to take away my license."

Krom explained that the citation did not come when the city first learned of the distribution of food from unlicensed kitchens at his soup kitchen, but only after he made public testimony at the State Department of Health in defense of Food Not Bombs.

"We serve sandwiches that are made by some of the schools, by some of the Catholic classes, Boy and Girl Scouts," Krom said. "And now we're being told we cannot receive these sandwiches."

As many pointed out, the irony of the current law is that it provides an exception for charitable organizations who cook food in unlicensed kitchens, and sell it to raise funds. So a bake sale is legal, but a church after-service social, at which baked goods are shared, is technically illegal.

"What if we sold the food at Sunday meals for a penny," suggested Middletown YMCA director Bob Spencer, who is also on the board of directors at St. Vincent dePaul.

"The law is rarely this blatantly stupid," Livingston explained noting that the state legislature, which is currently in special session, has been urged to address the flaw in the law (CT State Statute 19A-36). "Technically this is not a budget issue," he said. "But they could hook this change onto an implementer bill, which is a budget bill."

State Senator Paul Doyle, who represents Middletown, was the only state or city elected official at the meeting.

"I guarantee I will try to get it in," Doyle promised. "But I can't promise that it will make it in or that it will pass. I will certainly push and I will speak to the rest of the delegation. The cause is so broad that it affects everyone. The truth of the matter is that sometimes the legislature merely reacts, and there are unintended consequences."

Many at the meeting expressed disbelief that the Middletown Health Department was so determined to uphold the statute, in an across-the-board consistent manner, and they were alternately angry and saddened by this enforcement.

"If they're going to try to be consistent about it," said Reverend John Hall of First Church. "Then they're going to have to shut down all the church coffee hours, the Shepard Home, the Christmas dinners served by the churches."

The Reverend Cocomo Rock explained that at low point in his life, he sought out sustenance from a charitable organization.

"Had it not been for a local church I wouldn't have been able to eat," he said passionately. "Unless I ate in a jail, or a hospital, or I ate something I stole. Or from a garbage can."

"There are no licensed dumpsters," Livingston said. "We don't want people to eat from unlicensed kitchens, but they can eat from dumpsters. Everyone of us who is lucky enough to have a home eats out of an unlicensed kitchen every day."

"I think it's ironic that the policy over the past several years has been to cut back on the state and city sponsored projects, and rely on churches and people of faith to take up these programs, and now we've come to this," said Juan Figueroa, of the Universal Health Project.

Much of the meeting was given over to a discussion of strategies to change the law, and simultaneously prevent any organization which helps to feed the hungry from being prevented from doing so.

"We must remember that winter is coming and that the economy is getting further depressed, and that means more hunger, so we can't stop," said Bishop William McKissick of the New Jerusalem Church. "I'd love to lead the charge and serve people food and say 'Come and arrest me," but it's the hungry kid that worries me. There will be hunger. This is not about that, it's about a law that's stupid."

"It's absurd," said real estate developer and former director of St. Vincent dePaul Soup Kitchen Peter Harding. "We're going to hesitate to feed people? That's bull."

The group agreed to address the problem by immediately contacting state legislators to push through the change during this special session. In addition, Community Health Center CEO, Mark Masselli urged the group to approach the mayor, the majority leader and the Common Council of Middletown to make adjustment to the ordinance and the enforcement. Republican Council member David Bauer has drafted a Council resolution, but it is still being considered by the city's Health Commission


Vinnie said...

Wouldn't you think this is a good time for the Mayor to show some leadership on this insane issue!

Anonymous said...

Concerning the title of the article, I would argue that the US constitution protects the practice of communion.

That said, Health Departments are needed to protect practioners of communion in case such as the following:
"DARIEN, Conn. (AP) -- Grape juice that sickened churchgoers during a communion service last month was tainted with dishwashing soap, police said Friday. (March 2006)"

Working with all involved is the best course of action, since all are sincere in making Middletown better.

Anonymous said...

Other than your right to worship, I do not believe communion is specifically protected by the Constitution.

Pastor Joel Neubauer said...

The question is not the legality of the Sacrament of Holy Communion, but the legality of people sharing their bread with one another.

I doubt the Church would be prosecuted for sharing Communion in the bread and wine that is for us the body and blood of Christ.

Where is the protection for the also-holy communion that individuals share with each other (in the name of God or of peace & justice) in the daily food and drink that sustains the bodies of our neighborhoods, especially those who may otherwise have nothing to eat?

Anonymous said...

Holy Communion is a key sacrament in the
for many christian faiths and symbolizes, among many things, a person’s connection with
God, presence in Christ and unity with the Church. It is worship. How could this be construed as not protected under the first amendment. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

I would would be scared to think what else that Anonymous 8:48am thinks is not protected, unless a misleading article title furthers your political agenda.

Middletown Eye (Ed McKeon) said...

I think the headline is at the heart of the issue. The law is a bad one, and extended to its logical conclusion it makes church coffee socials, meals for the needy, club picnics, PTA gatherings and communion, technically illegal.

Bad laws need to be changed to reflect what they intended in the first place.

And the city needs to stop spending time and money persecuting those who are helping hungry families and individuals at a time of huge economic crisis.

Anonymous said...

Most Communion wafers are commercially manufactured as is the wine.

Anonymous said...

I must apologize for the syntax error. Of course Communion, as a religious rite, is protected by the First Amendment, but under the umbrella of freedom of religion.To fragment the article into discreet practices is contextually nebulous.
Too picky? Sorry-but a lawyer may pick it apart on that basis.

Anonymous said...

If FNB is an anarchist organization then they have achieved their purpose by turning reasonable people against their government, and against each other. These children have caused a lot of trouble in Middletown by not following the regulations.

Middletown Eye (Ed McKeon) said...

Or, from another perspective, they've done a lot of good, by exposing a bad law and getting residents to talk about poverty and hunger.

Anonymous said...

Maybe Food Not Bombs could,in addition to bringing food to those who won't stray far from Liberty and Main,try to get jobs for these folks.I realize it's stupid to work at McDonald's for seven bucks an hour when you can get free food, clothing,housing, and medical.....oh, I get it now.

Middletown Eye (Ed McKeon) said...

"Are there no workhouses? Are there no prisons?"

Maybe we should put the toddlers to work at McDonalds.

Or better yet, as Jonathan Swift once suggested, roast them and feed them to the poor.