PHOENIX — On Saturday mornings, crowds of homeless 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," says 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," says 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," Jason Morris says. "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," Haynes said. "The law has teeth ... It's a big mistake for local officials to try to limit the ministry of religious groups."
In San Diego, for example, the city's parks department sought to require a group of ministries to stop serving food to the poor at a popular bayside park and relocate to a fenced-in dirt lot.
The department scrapped that idea in March after receiving a letter threatening suit from the Alliance Defense Fund, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based legal group that takes on religious freedom cases on behalf of Christians.
In Pensacola, Fla., the Alliance Defense Fund filed a lawsuit in April against the city on behalf of a church after the police department there ordered it to stop holding a picnic that included homeless people at a popular historic park. The city soon after agreed to allow the picnic.
Cities often target events that help the homeless because they don't want them to be seen, says Kevin Theriot, ADF's senior counsel. The group is not involved in the Phoenix case, but Theriot says the church's freedom of religion is being violated.
"Feeding the homeless and feeding those who are hungry has been recognized as an important religious belief for years," he says. "My guess is if they were serving a pancake breakfast to local neighborhood folks that aren't homeless, then nobody would have a problem."
The neighbors' attorney says his clients' main problem is the church busing in homeless people from a poorer neighborhood nearby.
For the past year, a bus has given rides to the church to hundreds of people from their spots among bushes, in alleyways and the barren hillsides overlooking the city. The church says they get bused back after the breakfast.
Morris says some have stuck around and have urinated in yards or broken into cars.
One homeless man took up residence in an alley behind Kevin Swatich's home. Police found that the homeless man was keeping child pornography in an electrical box and was a convicted felon.
"What I do know is my family was put in present danger by a predator who attended this breakfast," Swatich told the Phoenix Board of Adjustment last month.
Escobedo-Frank says it was an isolated incident that happened months ago. She says if any homeless are hanging around the neighborhood, residents can't possibly know whether they attended the breakfast.
"It doesn't make sense that they would leave here, where there's a bathroom, and go urinate on someone's yard," she says.
After receiving a complaint from neighbors, the city cited the church in July and ordered it to stop the breakfast. The Board of Adjustment denied the church's appeal last month. The first federal court hearing is set for March 24.
In the meantime, the breakfasts continue and, several attendees say, so do misunderstandings about homeless people.
"The neighborhood should come down and find out who we really are," said Robert Oswald, 53, who has been homeless for seven years and chooses to live on a nearby mountain. He said the church has helped him stay off drugs and alcohol.
Kenny Moe, 53, said church members helped get him off the streets and kick his 30-year drug habit.
Now he attends the breakfasts to support people still in need.
"This ministry is not about food, it's about giving people hope," Moe said.
On the Net:
CrossRoads United Methodist Church: http://www.crossroadsphx.com/
City of Phoenix: http://www.ci.phoenix.az.us/