Adventist Congregation Wins $3.7 Million Land-Use Suit Judgment
Maryland county was religiously biased, jury rules; judge to have final say
BY MARK A. KELLNER, Adventist Review News Editor
Seventh-day Adventist congregation in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., was awarded $3.7 million in damages on April 24 when a U.S. District Court jury in Greenbelt, Maryland, determined that Prince George’s County had discriminated on the basis of religion when it denied the congregation permission to build a church.
Though not the end of the matter – U.S. District Judge Roger W. Titus will rule on the question of whether the county was acting “in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest” on September 8 – “it’s a major event to get a jury’s determination on the facts and a substantial burden on religious exercise has occurred,” said Ward B. Coe, III, an attorney with the Baltimore firm of Gallagher Evelius & Jones LLP, which represented the congregation.
Reaching Hearts International, the congregation that brought the action, is affiliated with the Allegheny East Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. Adventist pastor Michael Oxentenko leads the congregation.
Meeting for several years at the Cedar Ridge Conference Center in Silver Spring, Maryland. Approximately 350 to 500 people attend worship weekly, however, Coe said, the church is only able to rent the conference center for nine hours a week.
CONGREGATIONAL LEADER: Adventist pastor Michael Oxentenko leads the Reaching Hearts congregation, which is trying to build a church in West Laurel, Maryland. The government of Prince George's County, in which West Laurel is located, was found to have discriminated against the congregation by a U.S. Disctrict Court Jury on April 24. [Photo: Mark A. Kellner/AR]
“That isn’t sufficient,” Coe told Adventist Review in a telephone interview. “That’s why they sought land where building a church was zoned.”
The $800,000 parcel the church purchased – 17 acres in West Laurel. Maryland – was zoned for church construction. A change in the “sewer category” needed to be approved by the Prince George’s County council for the church to connect its property to the county sewer system two blocks away. In 2003, county executive Jack B. Johnson suggested that the council approve the change; in that year the County Council approved 27 of 28 such applications.
The Reaching Hearts application was rejected by the panel, however, and it was reportedly the only church application to be made and denied. According to media reports, council member Thomas E. Dernoga, who represents the West Laurel area, worked to block the approval. The congregation responded by proposing a smaller church facility, to seat 750, and with parking for 173 vehicles.
In response Dernoga later introduced legislation, which the council passed, to limit the amount of land on the Reaching Hearts parcel that could be used for church construction to an amount that could not support even the scaled-back church proposed by the congregation.
According to attorney Coe, “we were claiming we were treated differently because we were a religion.” The jury found that this was the case, even though county attorneys argued that Reaching Hearts presented no evidence of “intentional” discrimination.
Such governmental blockage of the free exercise of religion via permit denial is what led to the 2000 passage of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton on September 22 of that year, said Eric Rassbach, national litigation director for The Becket Fund, a public-interest nonprofit law firm in Washington, D.C.
Although Becket did not participate in the Reaching Hearts case, Rassbach said he was pleased with the jury’s determination in the matter.
“I think it hopefully will send a signal to local governments that they need to take into account the ability of their citizens to engage in religious exercise when they make zoning decisions,” he told Adventist Review.
“I hope this is a beginning of a trend,” Rassbach said of the finding, and that “over time, there won’t be so large judgments because people will integrate religious land use into their rules.”
While not speaking to the specifics of the Reaching Hearts case, Rassbach said that discrimination against the construction of houses of worship is related to a “not-in-my-backyard” view of development.
“I like to think of it as the ‘frozen in time theory’ a lot of neighbors have,” he said. “The neighborhood should be frozen in time as of date of purchase of the house. Any change is bad…even if it’s a private property a church wants to build on.”
At the same time, Rassbach said, “a church, by definition, needs some place to meet. It may not be what you want, but you have to let them have it. It has to do with private property. It’s not like the church asks to build a building in the middle of a park.”
Reaching Hearts’ attorney Coe said Judge Titus will have to determine if Prince George’s was “acting in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and used [the] least restrictive means” in denying permission for the church construction.
“If we win on those issues, a judgment will be entered for the jury’s award,” he said, adding, “Prince George’s County said they would appeal” if they lost.
At the same time, Coe said the church was hoping county officials would grant the permit: “We’d much rather have permission to build than have a lawsuit.”