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On The Front Lines

Rutherford Institute Intervenes After Phoenix Officials Prohibit Christians From Handing Out Free Bottled Water to Passersby Without a Vendor Permit

PHOENIX, Ariz. — The Rutherford Institute has come to the defense of a Phoenix resident who was told she could not hand out free bottles of cold water to passersby on a public sidewalk during a “First Friday” festival as a means of exercising her Christian beliefs. A Neighborhood Preservation Inspector with the City of Phoenix informed Dana Crow-Smith that she was violating the Phoenix City Code by passing out free bottles of water without a vendor’s permit. Rutherford Institute attorneys have deemed the City’s actions to be problematic on numerous fronts, pointing out that not only is the ban on passing out free water completely unjustified under the City Code, but it also constitutes a violation of Crow-Smith’s First Amendment right to freely exercise her religion, her Fourteenth Amendment due process rights, as well as Arizona’s Free Exercise of Religion Act.

The Rutherford Institute’s letter to the city officials is available here.

“It is a sad day when local government officials prohibit Americans from such charitable acts as giving water to the thirsty in their city,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “Sadly, this is the reality that more and more Americans are grappling with in the face of a government bureaucracy consumed with churning out laws, statutes, codes and regulations that reinforce its powers and value systems and those of the police state and its corporate allies.”

Dana Crow-Smith, a Christian, was assembled with other Christians at a Phoenix “First Friday” festival in July to publicly express her Christian faith and engage willing passersby in conversations about their religious beliefs. Having read a Bible passage referencing the importance of small acts of kindness such as offering water to the thirsty (Matthew 10:42), Crow-Smith was further moved to offer cold bottles of water to people at the Festival who were braving the desert’s scorching 112-degree heat. However, during the festival, Crow-Smith was approached by a Neighborhood Preservation Inspector who informed the group that they were violating the Phoenix City Code by giving away water without a vendor’s permit.  Although Crow-Smith protested that a vendor’s permit should not be required of citizens who merely sought to offer water as a free gift, the inspector insisted that the City Code prohibits “sidewalk vending” without a license agreement. “Sidewalk vending” is defined in the Code as “peddling, vending, selling, displaying, or offering for sale any item of tangible personal property or other thing of value upon a sidewalk of the City of Phoenix.”

In challenging the City’s assertions, attorneys for The Rutherford Institute point out that as these provisions are expressly limited to the sale of goods, they clearly do not apply to Crow-Smith’s act of charitably giving away water. Institute attorneys are demanding that City officials issue a formal, written apology to Crow-Smith, assure her in writing that no City officials will interfere in the future with her distribution of water, and require that all law enforcement officials in the City undergo training on proper enforcement of the City’s Code, including training to ensure that officials will pay proper regard to citizens’ exercise of First Amendment rights. 

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