- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 3, 2010

PHOENIX | On Saturday mornings, crowds of homeless people gather with other needy people at picnic tables outside a church in an upscale Phoenix neighborhood, listen to sermons and settle in for sausage, pancakes and scrambled eggs.

The pastor says it’s the Lord’s work. Neighbors say it should be done elsewhere.

Residents say the homeless create blight and pose a danger to them, pointing to the case of a homeless felon caught with child pornography in the neighborhood. A complaint prompted city officials to order the year-old breakfast halted, saying it violated zoning laws.

Now, the dispute is in federal court in Phoenix, with the church saying the city is violating its First Amendment rights and a federal law that protects religious groups from city zoning rules.

“This is what it means to be a church,” said the Rev. Dottie Escobedo-Frank of the CrossRoads United Methodist Church. “We’re just trying to take care of some people who are hungry and trying to reach out to our neighborhood.”

City officials say they’ve never disagreed that the church is doing good work, but that it’s operating as a charity dining hall in violation of zoning laws. The church is on a busy street, lined with homes with well-manicured lawns.

“We’re glad in the city that they’re trying to help out,” said Patrick Ravenstein, the city’s area manager for neighborhood preservation. “However, the type of help they’re giving can only be conducted in a certain zoning district.”

The attorney for the neighbors says his clients’ complaints have nothing to do with religion.

“This has never been about the First Amendment,” said Jason Morris. “It’s about a law that applies to every property owner.”

Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the Nashville-based First Amendment Center, said such spats have become quite common across the country since Congress passed the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act in 2000.

The law gives religious groups a high level of protection in zoning cases and forces cities to show there’s a compelling reason, such as public safety, to restrict them.

And “churches are winning more than they’re losing,” Mr. Haynes said. “The law has teeth … It’s a big mistake for local officials to try to limit the ministry of religious groups.”

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