03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

ACLU Attorney Who Fought For Miranda Rights Rules Against the Poor

PHOENIX, AZ - How ironic is it that the attorney responsible for successfully introducing the concept of Miranda rights to the U.S. Supreme Court would become a retired Arizona Supreme Court Justice who has now handed down a draconian ruling that homeless and poor individuals can't eat pancakes before a worship service?

In the 1960s, ACLU general counsel, Robert J. Corcoran thought generously about how civil rights should affect the little guy. After receiving a letter from Ernesto Miranda, a convicted rapist, Corcoran found stars in his eyes as he realized a chance to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court that Miranda's rights had been violated in extracting a confession. With a dream team he assembled from his former law firm, Corcoran changed forever the way detainees are treated.

Now this same attorney, who proudly received the ACLU Civil Libertarian of the Year award for his stellar work in assuring the Miranda rights of every person arrested by police, has ruled that homeless and poor people can't receive a simple pancake breakfast as part of a Saturday morning worship service at Crossroads Methodist Church in Phoenix, Ariz.

ACLU Founding Board Member, Alice Bendheim, remembers the once-ideological Corcoran after his triumphant work for the ACLU.

"Bob had his award, along with the letter from Miranda and the title page of the Supreme Court opinion framed and it was hanging in his chambers when he was in the Superior Court. I don't know if he kept it on the wall when he was a Supreme."

Lowering her voice, Bendheim continues, "He has become much more conservative in the last 10 to 15 years. He was liberal in those days, in the early 60s. Now he can't be that [liberal] in Arizona."

In the matter of Crossroads Church however, Justice Corcoran showed he still has the chops to be clever and innovative. In his 19 page quasi-judicial ruling, Corcoran used several online dictionaries to define his notion that the church is functioning as a "Charity Dining Hall" by serving a once-a-week pancake breakfast in conjunction with a worship service. Although the City of Phoenix does not define the terms, "charity" or "dining hall" in their zoning ordinance, Corcoran used some fine-tuned Googling to rule that city zoning regulations were nevertheless violated.

Confirming that Crossroads intends to appeal Corcoran's ruling, church attorney Marilee Miller Clarke explained of the Saturday morning breakfasts, "This is not a charity dining hall in the sense that it's merely there to provide food. It's not a dining hall. It's part of the service. It's just one element of it."

With a 50-year history of feeding the homeless and caring for disenfranchised individuals, Crossroads maintains they are not violating city codes, but rather providing an enhancement to the community. In her argument, Miller Clarke also cited First Amendment right to freedom of religion, the 14th Amendment and the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.

When asked about Justice Corcoran's flip-flop from his famous background, Miller Clarke said, "The ACLU isn't really popular in this area ... I'm not surprised that he became very conservative over the years."

Crossroads congregant and self-described "formerly homeless heathen", Smoky, 58, doesn't care about conservative or liberal ideology. He just wants to attend church and have a nice breakfast with everyone. He winces as he talks of a 40-year methamphetamine habit. "Crossroads gave me a purpose," he says. "I'm not unique in that way. I'm clean and sober now for one year and I wouldn't be at all if it wasn't for Crossroads. We're here to worship and eat because it's hard to look for God if your stomach is grumbling and you can't think for the hunger."

The church's co-defendant in the matter, Prodigals Home, guides and supports a great number of people like Smoky who it says will suffer without the full complement of fellowship during their Saturday worship service.

Prodigals Home Director, Mike Ricker says of the Saturday morning services, "This is not a homeless feeding program. We need to change our words because words have power. We are learning to change our language. It is time for us to be intentional."

Answering to neighborhood allegations that homeless people are taking over the area, Ricker says, "About a third of our people are mentally ill and chronically homeless, a third are what we call 'couch surfers' in homes of family and friends and a third are hard-working poor people." He continues, "These neighbors have said they want to shut down the church.

Kim Ricker adds, "For me, I'm all about serving those we're called to serve. We're appealing to the Board of Adjustment in another quasi-judicial hearing, this time made up of volunteer citizens. Most are realtors with property value on the brain, so we don't expect favor from this Board of Adjustment hearing. Nevertheless, we're moving forward." The hearing is scheduled for December 14.

Ricker points out that there are at least 20 other Phoenix churches that have been providing food to the homeless and poor as part of their worship programs. "People are hurting everywhere and it's really bad here with job losses and foreclosures. Maybe it's time to think of poor people as our neighbors instead of our adversaries," she says.

In response to Corcoran's ruling that Crossroads is serving as a "charity dining hall," Pastor Dottie Escobedo-Frank, writes on the church website,

... there's still a lot of questions to be answered. Questions like, How hungry? What about our potlucks? What about our Christmas dinner or Easter Sunrise breakfast? When I eat that, I am pretty that allowed? What about the coffee and donuts we serve on Sunday mornings? Can we eat that if we are hungry? And then there is the other question, "How poor?" How poor do we have to be to be considered a "charity?" Federal-poverty-guidelines-poor? Not-able-to-make-the-house-payment-poor? Or, how about not-able-to-pay-off-the-credit-card-poor?

In 1966, one enterprising and brilliant attorney argued for the rights of people accused of a crime. Where did that man go when it came time to decide if hungry people were complicit in a crime by being served a simple plate of pancakes on a Saturday morning?

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