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Hunger Trumps Zoning, Church Tells Phoenix

PHOENIX (CN) - A Methodist church says Phoenix is trying to stop it from feeding the homeless at Saturday morning worship service. CrossRoads United Methodist Church claims that even if feeding people is prohibited by zoning, the city can't stop it because "serving meals as part of a worship service" is protected under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

In its federal complaint, the church says Phoenix cited it on July 9, 2009 and told it cease and desist serving breakfast because doing so makes the church a "charity dining hall," under the city's zoning ordinance.

The church says it offers free food and drink at all of its services.

On Nov. 9, 2009, former Justice Robert J. Corcoran, acting as Phoenix's zoning hearing officer, found that the church was operating a charity dining hall. The Board of Adjustment affirmed Corcoran's decision on Jan. 7.

The church started its Saturday worship service in January 2009 with Prodigal's Home, an outreach program, and includes common Christian worship rituals such as prayer and lighting of the advent candle. It aims to feed the homeless and to fulfill their "spiritual needs" and "spread the Gospel."

The church says its service brought in more than 20 new members of CrossRoads - the largest source of new members for the church during 2009. The church also raised more than $5,000 in offerings during Saturday services to send to a children's shelter in Belarus.

CrossRoads seeks declaratory judgment and wants the city enjoined from "preventing, interfering with, or punishing" the church for its service.

The church is represented by Marilee M. Clarke of Scottsdale.

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