Zoning out the Christmas spirit
12/20/2002 12:00:00 AM - Michelle Malkin
Ebenezer Scrooge is alive and well in Virginia Beach, Va. That's
where government officials have launched a punitive legal campaign against a
Christian-based charity that distributes toys and food to the poor.
For 16 years, the selfless volunteers of Mothers, Inc. have
served needy children and seniors with an annual Thanksgiving turkey drive
and Christmas toy drive. The organization also provides families with
back-to-school supplies and helps locate shelter for the homeless throughout
the rest of the year. Founder Brenda McCormick, an Air Force widow with two
children who had seen lean times herself during the holidays, launched the
charity to help families who fell through the cracks in other existing
"Never assume," she says, that someone else is doing something
McCormick manages her grass-roots distribution network from her
home located a block from Virginia Beach's popular tourist strip. Donors
drive to the house to drop off teddy bears and bikes and other Christmas
bounties. The charity's headquarters are tucked into a residential district
that allows a wide range of uses, including day-care centers, churches,
boarding homes, and bed-and-breakfast inns.
As McCormick's non-profit group grew more successful, cranky
neighbors complained about "excessive traffic" and the "littering" of
donated packages on the front lawn.
If Santa Claus himself touched down on the sidewalk in his
reindeer-drawn sleigh to help out with the Mothers, Inc. toy drive, these
people would kvetch about the jingle bells making too much noise and
Rudolph's glowing nose causing an eyesore.
City Scrooges cited McCormick for zoning law violations earlier
this year and took her to court. They filed a misdemeanor criminal complaint
charging her with illegally operating a charitable organization in a
neighborhood. A judge dismissed the complaint in October, but the government
meanies didn't give up. They've impugned her record-keeping and
unjustly smeared her as a tax scofflaw. And this week, they sought a
preliminary injunction to stop Mothers, Inc. from using McCormick's house as
a drop-off spot for gifts.
Unbelievably, city zoning administrator Karen Lasley attacked
the charity for placing a sign in the front yard alerting donors to its
location. In court testimony, Lasley also complained about people unloading
donations from cars, and a table in the front yard with slices of bread on
it and a sign reading "free bread.''
The good news is that on Wednesday, a local judge denied the
city's request to bar Mothers, Inc. from collecting toys before Christmas.
The bad: McCormick will be hauled back into court on March 25, 2003, for
trial and a hearing on a permanent injunction against the home-based
McCormick is not alone. Good Samaritans across the country are
being targeted by crotchety zoning czars. The Becket Fund for Religious
Liberty based in Washington, D.C., notes that in Franklin County, Ohio,
Arthur Willhite has been similarly harassed by local zoning officials
seeking to shut down his ministry, which delivers free bread, crackers and
cookies to the needy. The battle has been waged for two years, during which
time Willhite and his family were forced to dump dozens of truckloads of
food that they had painstakingly collected at Columbus area production and
No one argues that these home-based charities should be exempt
from standard fire, public safety, traffic and building use codes. But local
governments, infected with callous NIMBYism, are increasingly using zoning
rules to curtail many charitable groups' First Amendment rights to assemble
and freely exercise their religious mission of ministering to the
disadvantaged. It is shameful that both McCormick and Willhite are fighting
for constitutional protection to serve the poor during this season of
Yes, Virginia, there is a grinch.