I never knew. Apparently, in Jefferson Parish you need an occupational license to hand out free water.
The source of this revelation was an incident that occurred during Carnival, or “Family Gras” as they call it in Metairie (the literal translation of which is “fat family,” which seems ominously appropriate if you believe in popular stereotypes about suburban families).
Anyway, it seems that members of Hope Church were handing out free bottles of water and cups of coffee to parade goers along the Metairie route. Alas, their charitable plans were thwarted when members of the local constabulary informed them that they would need to secure an occupational license and a sales tax permit in order to continue distributing free coffee and water.
Supposedly the police are swamped during Mardi Gras, but if they have the time to harass people doing charitable work… Well, I guess they’re not so busy after all.
The basic problem here is obvious enough. The act of having volunteers from a church Landing out free water and coffee should require neither an occupational license nor a sales tax permit. Handing out free stuff is not a profession (no matter how much I wish it were), and you aren’t responsible for collecting sales tax unless, you know, you’re actually selling something.
Three key lessons can be learned from this incident. First, that Jefferson Parish authorities cannot be trusted to exercise proper discretion in enforcing the law. If there was ever a set of circumstances that cried out for backing off, it was this. Hope Church was not transacting business and no purpose would be served (aside from getting revenue far Jefferson Parish from the licensing fee) by requiring them to wade through local bureaucracy.
In fact, one suspects that the Parish only acted because of complaints from vendors selling water at a hefty markup. Hope Church wasn’t threatening health or safety so much as it was threatening somebody’s profits.
Secondly, it’s pretty obvious that occupational licensing is out of control. It’s one thing to have it for plumbers and electricians but quite another to have it for passing around water bottles. The apparent goals are to restrict competition and provide an additional source of government revenue, neither of which are legitimate.
Thirdly, this incident teaches us that Jefferson Parish is just as capable of embarrassing itself as Orleans. This story was repeated by Fox News and Britain’s Daily Mail, giving it worldwide exposure. Although the pastor of New Hope has downplayed the whole incident, it still holds a resonance for those tired of runaway government.
The concept that I need special licensing from the government to transact any kind of business is personally abhorrent to me. It’s one thing to require licensing of a few select professions, but quite another to have licensing laws so broad that they encompass not only sustained commercial ventures, but transient, non-commercial activities like, say, handing out free water on Mardi Gras.
As the members of Hope Church might say, we are required to render unto Caesar what is his, and render to God what is God’s. The question is whether we are being asked to render too much to Caesar to the general detriment of society. After all, in a democracy, the only “Caesar” is us.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.