Precedence should sit this one out

by Barnabas Piper
Posted on Tuesday, August 21, 2012, at 3:05 pm

Society cannot function without laws. We need laws and the enforcement of them to ensure safety, structure, and well being. Laws protect our way of life and restrict harmful behavior. A proper legislative system will promote or reward good and punish evil. At least that's the theory.

But what happens when those same laws inhibit people from doing right? I'm not referring to some Robin-Hood-meets-Prince-John good outlaw vs. evil dictator. I'm referring to the type of inhibition that comes from a law that started with good reason but, because of precedence, now threatens to keep children hungry.

Angela Prattis isn't a lawbreaker and she's no outlaw. As far as we know she isn't one to pursue civil disobedience in order to prove a point. She is a 41-year-old mother of three who, in conjunction with the archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Department of Education, offers free lunches to as many as 60 children every day during the summer. This doesn't seem like much of a problem, except for zoning laws. According to the city of Philadelphia, Prattis is at risk of owing up to $600 a day in fines if she doesn't stop handing out meals or pay a fee of $1,000 to apply for a zoning variance. (See a video report below from NBC 10 in Philadelphia.)

It seems clear that Prattis' program is not within the law, but it is also clear that it is a very good thing to feed 60 children daily in a poor area where they often go without meals when they are out of school. It's easy for the heart to say, "Just let her run this program. What's the harm?" And the response would be that to allow one person to function outside the law is to set a dangerous precedent. In fact interpretation of law and enforcement of it often rests on precedent. You only need to watch a couple episodes of Law & Order to know that.

We know the precedent that is feared by allowing Prattis to run her free lunch program unimpeded, so the question is this: What precedent is being set by fining a woman for feeding children who need food? At first blush it appears to be "technical interpretation of law is more important than the people the law is supposed to serve." This seems to be a case when legal precedent would be best served to sit on the sidelines and let common sense do the work.

There is a standard that is more important than that of zoning law, that of caring for the needy and feeding the hungry. Call it a precedent of societal good. If the law cannot be amended or exceptions allowed for this greater good, then the law is not doing what it ought. There is no need to make this situation into a legal issue. Simply allow for the feeding of children in need. It is greater than precedent.

Barnabas Piper

Barnabas works for Lifeway Christian Resources and is the author of The Pastor’s Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity and Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt Is Not the Enemy of Faith. He and his wife live in the Nashville area with their two daughters. Follow Barnabas on Twitter @BarnabasPiper.

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