Thursday, May 1, 2008

Church wins $3.7M in case against county

Suit alleges county discriminated against congregation that sought to relocate to West Laurel

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A federal jury awarded a predominantly African-American church $3.7 million in damages on April 24 in a case that accused the Prince George’s County Council of discriminating against the group by blocking its efforts to build a church in West Laurel.

Reaching Hearts International, a Seventh-day Adventist church, sued the county in 2005 after it was denied zoning changes necessary to build at the new location. The lawsuit claimed the County Council and Councilman Thomas E. Dernoga (D-Dist. 1) of Laurel had ‘‘a history of prejudice against churches and of using zoning ordinances to obstruct the development and limit the growth of churches in the county.”

The suit also claimed that the West Laurel Civic Association ‘‘lobbied against the church because it is a multiethnic congregation from an African-American conference.”

Prince George’s County and the County Council were named as the defendants in the suit.

The jury found that the county’s actions were motivated, at least in part, on the basis of religious discrimination, and its actions created a burden on the group’s right to freely exercise its religion.

The jury’s award isn’t final. U.S. District Court Judge Roger Titus has scheduled a Sept. 8 hearing in Greenbelt, when he will decide if the county had a compelling interest in their actions. If not, Reaching Hearts will be awarded the $3.7 million.

‘‘This is a great step forward for the church and religious organizations in general,” said the church’s attorney Ward B. Coe III. ‘‘Churches have traditionally been in residential neighborhoods and rural areas. ... Local governments can’t interfere with that freedom.”

‘‘We’re very grateful that the jury looked at the evidence and understood where we’re coming from and allowed us to move forward,” Head Pastor Michael Oxentenko said. ‘‘We wish good will to everyone and hope the outcome will be good for everyone.”

The county will decide whether to appeal after Judge Titus’ decision, according to a statement written on behalf of Council Chairman Samuel Dean (D-Dist. 6) of Mitchellville and the council.

‘‘The Prince George’s County Council respectfully disagrees with the decision reached by the jury in this case. At no time did the Prince George’s County government discriminate against Reaching Hearts International,” the statement said. ‘‘The issue that confronted the County Council in part was one of public health and safety as the church wanted to construct their facilities over a ten - year period next to the Rocky Gorge Reservoir, the county’s largest source of drinking water.”

In 2002, Reaching Hearts bought 17 acres of land at 6100 Brooklyn Bridge Road, near the Rocky Gorge Reservoir, for $800,000 in order to build a new church, according to the suit. The congregation of 350 to 500 had been worshiping in a Spencerville conference center, which they said isn’t large enough for them. Church members only have access to the site two days a week because of the terms of the lease. The conference center rents space to other groups. The church planned to build the sanctuary with a 1,500 seating capacity and school in the new West Laurel location.

In order to build on the new site, the church sought a zoning change to connect to public water and sewer lines, according to the suit. It stated that the church met requirements outlined in the county’s sewer plan, and that County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D), the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission and the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission recommended the changes.

‘‘Before Dernoga cast his vote, the other [Park and Planning] committee members voted to approve the application. Dernoga informed the committee that he was opposed to the church’s plans,” the suit claims. ‘‘Dernoga instructed the other members to re-vote and all voted against the application.”

The suit alleges Dernoga acted upon constituents’ concerns. The 27 other applications from other groups were approved. None was from religious organizations.

Reaching Hearts attempted to revise its plans for a smaller church, but the suit claims Dernoga submitted a further zoning bill to block the group’s efforts. The bill, which passed, changed the density of lot coverage for a church building within 2,500 feet of a drinking water reservoir from 50 percent to 10 percent, meaning the church could only build on 0.34 acre of its land. The drinking water reservoir is north of the property, but doesn’t abut it.

Dennis Cook, the West Laurel Civic Association’s zoning officer, said he did not realize the church was predominantly African-American until the suit was filed. He said the community’s problem isn’t with the church’s ethnicity, but with the location and size of the proposed structure, as storm water runoff from a large parking lot would pollute the reservoir.

‘‘The civic association was simply responding to a request to build a large building and large parking lot near the reservoir,” he said. ‘‘They have a mixed-race congregation and West Laurel is a mixed-race community.”

Cook mentioned a nearby Korean Seventh-day Adventist church and nearby predominantly African-American Jehovah’s Witness church which had not drawn complaints.

‘‘We will still oppose it for the environmental reasons that we stated before,” he said.