Insisting that the new city law was not targeting religious programs feeding homeless people along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Deputy Mayor Michael DiBerardinis told a federal judge this morning the ban was the only way he could find to stretch limited resources to maintain the parks for all residents.

Under questioning by Paul Messing, a lawyer for four religious groups challenging the constitutionality of city's ban on feeding groups of three or more people in city parks, DeBerardinis bristled at the suggestion that the ordinance was targeting Center City's homeless population.

"The regularity of these [feedings] puts a burden on the system," DiBerardinis testified. "It's not about who it is, it's the activity and any suggestion that we don't want the homeless people there is dead wrong."

DiBerardinis was the first witness called by Messing in what is expected to be two days of hearings before U.S. District Judge William H. Yohn on a lawsuit asking the judge to block enforcement of the law that went into effect June 1.

Four religious groups, which claim to have fed homeless people on the parkway for more than a decade as part of their religious missions, filed the suit: Chosen 300 Ministries, the Welcome Church, the King's Jubilee, and Philly Restart. The City of Philadelphia and Mayor Nutter are named as defendants.

The plaintiffs are represented by the Philadelphia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and lawyers from the Philadelphia civil rights firm of Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg.

The religious groups saw the city ordinance — it now permits religious groups to feed homeless people outdoors only on the concrete apron at the west side of City Hall — violates their First Amendment rights of association and to freely practice religion.

City officials, however, say the restrictions are designed with public health issues in mind and that the open, unregulated feeding of homeless people increases the risk of sickness from contaminated food.

DiBerardinis testified that the homeless feeding program — usually on Vine Street between 18th and 19th Streets in front of the Family Court building and the Free Library — forces him to devote a disproportional amount of personnel and money to maintaining a small portion of Fairmount Park's 9,200 acres.

"There is the trash involved that has to be taken away and in some instances human waste, increased problems with infestations and a quicker degradation of the landscape," DiBerardinis told the judge.

Until the new ordinance was passed, DiBerardinis continued, the homeless feeding programs were the only large-scale activity along the parkway that was not regulated by the city in some fashion.

Among those testifying against the ordinance was The Rev. Violet Little, pastor of the Welcome Church, which she described as a "church without walls" whose mission is care for the homeless people who live along the parkway.

Little, who runs several other programs in donated space around Center City, testified that her congregation is a registered parish of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and has a tax-exempt identification number.

Little said her congregations hold services at 18th and the Parkway at 3 p.m. on the last Sunday of each month regardless of weather. After a service, she said, the congregants have a get-together in which coffee, pastries, cookies and juice are served.

Her volunteers "leave the area cleaner than we found it," Little testified. She said the 50 or so congregants would not go elsewhere: "We consider this sacred ground because that is where the people live. My congregants live on the Parkway."

In March, Nutter announced plans to end the feeding of large numbers of homeless in city parks, saying he wanted to provide for indoor meals instead.

Nutter and other city officials have argued that offering food to homeless people from indoor locations is more sanitary and provides the beneficiaries with more dignity.

Some critics, however, have said they believe the ordinance was motivated in part by a desire to remove the homeless from an area of the parkway recently rejuvenated by the opening of the Barnes Collection museum.

DiBerardinis, however, said the ordinance had been under discussion since the 1990s — long before the Barnes move was proposed.

Contact Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985,, or @joeslobo on Twitter.