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Norwich does not need a nasty confrontation over the continued operation of St. Vincent de Paul Place soup kitchen while a dispute over its legality moves into the court system.
As we've said before, this is a very unfortunate situation. Forced to move from its prior location in a former train station in the downtown because of structural problems with that building, the soup kitchen - operated by the Diocese of Norwich - now provides meals to the homeless and others in need at the former St. Joseph School. Unlike the prior site, the current location at the corner of Cliff Street and Clairmont Avenue is in a neighborhood. Residents contend the comings and goings, and the behavior of some who use the soup kitchen, have negatively affected their community. Their testimony led the Commission on the City Plan to deny a special permit for the facility. Its temporary permit expires today.
Meanwhile, the issue heads to federal court. The Roman Catholic diocese is asking U.S. District Judge Warren W. Eginton to issue an injunction blocking the city from forcing the closing of the soup kitchen. Its attorney, Timothy Bates, is making the argument that federal law and the constitutional protection of religious freedom prohibit the city from stopping its operation.
The judge has set Feb. 25 and 26 to hear arguments on the request for an injunction. With that proceeding pending it would be a mistake for the city to move too aggressively against the soup kitchen. Both sides will soon have their day in court. The kitchen provides an important service and many of those it serves have no other resource.
As for the religious freedom question, it is a difficult one. Certainly the Catholic Church has long seen such charitable works as part of its Christian mission. But is denying the ability of the church to pursue those works in a particular location "prohibiting the free exercise" of its religion? That may be a bridge too far.
We again urge city and diocesan leaders to try to find an alternative location that is less intrusive on a neighborhood, but accessible to those in need. Yet that, we concede, is a difficult challenge.