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