Charity vs. community

Editorials are supposed to take a clear stand one way or the other, but on this issue we must admit to being conflicted.

The issue is the recent decision by the Norwich Commission on the City Plan to deny, by unanimous vote, a special permit for the St. Vincent de Paul Place soup kitchen, sought so that it could continue operating in the former St. Joseph School. The soup kitchen that provides sustenance to the homeless and other needy in Norwich moved into the school building in July after having to vacate its long-time location in the old train station when that building was found structurally unsound.

Initially seen as a transitory location, for which the Roman Catholic Diocese of Norwich received temporary permits, the diocese opted to make the old school the soup kitchen's permanent new home. Residents living in homes around the former school at the corner of Cliff Street and Clairmont Avenue complain the influx of people using the soup kitchen is detracting from their qualify of life and sense of security. Residents told the commission stories of trespassing, littering and rude behavior. Based on that testimony, the commission judged the soup kitchen did not qualify for a special permit. Temporary permits expire Jan. 12.

There are no bad guys in this story. The diocese only seeks to continue providing an important charitable service. Yet it is hard to fault neighbors for complaining about what they consider an unfair burden imposed on their struggling urban neighborhood.

The diocese is appealing the denial of the permit. It claims the evidence was not sufficient to justify denial.

Failing in that appeal, the case may end up in court, with the diocese contending that blocking a soup kitchen violates the right of freedom of religion. Charitable works are part of the Catholic tradition and a fulfillment of a Gospel imperative.

The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 sought to exempt such church-sponsored programs from the burdens of municipal zoning. But in the Texas case of City of Boerne v. Flores, the U.S. Supreme Court found it unconstitutional and beyond congressional authority to impose the rule on state and local governments. State courts have issued a mixed-bag of decisions on the freedom-of-religion claim.

The best solution would be an alternative site, affordable for the diocese and less intrusive to a neighborhood. In that regard we welcome Mayor Peter Nystrom's willingness, if asked, to get involved in trying to find another location.

"These are our people," said Mayor Nystrom. "We've got to help."

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.


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