Friday, May 23, 2008

Church sues to build sanctuary in protected area

Federal case claims racial, religious discrimination

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A Silver Spring congregation has gone to federal court accusing the Montgomery County Council of racial and religious discrimination over its denial of a church project in a rural area of the county.

Bethel World Outreach Ministries, which lost an earlier county Circuit Court lawsuit over its proposed development of 119 acres off Brink Road, has outgrown its 450-seat sanctuary and planned to build on the Germantown parcel.

In November 2005, the County Council voted to restrict new water and sewer service for large institutions in the north county’s 93,000-acre Agricultural Reserve, rejecting Bethel’s request to extend utility pipes to the property. The decision prompted the legal action, filed May 8 in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt.

The council has restricted development in the rural preserve as large private institutions, facing rapid growth and soaring land costs, scoped out land there as sites for new facilities.

Arguments in the federal lawsuit are substantially the same as those in Bethel’s 2006 Circuit Court case, which has been appealed.

The federal suit argues that the denial of Bethel’s application for the utilities violates the state constitution’s rights on freedom of religion and the U.S. Constitution’s right to equal racial protection.

‘‘In short, the county has engaged in a targeted campaign of dilatory tactics delaying and now preventing, the church’s use of its property, including most recently the amendment of its zoning ordinance in a manner that prohibits the church from using its property for a house of worship at all,” according to the suit.

The county has not filed a response but believes the council ‘‘properly and legally acted” in denying utility connections two years ago, said Clifford L. Royalty, a county attorney involved in the case.

The county’s actions have harmed the church and its members, said Robert L. Greene, a partner at Storzer & Greene of Washington, the law firm representing Bethel.

‘‘We are very optimistic,” Greene said on Tuesday. ‘‘We don’t bring lawsuits that we don’t believe have a strong chance of success.”

He said the church has tried to compromise on the number of seats proposed for the church.

The council has allies in the push to preserve upcounty land.

‘‘The impacts of large Private Institutional Facilities are significant,” said Dolores Milmoe, a conservation advocate for the Audubon Naturalist Society. ‘‘In this day, and age they should not be placed in rural areas which are car dependent.”

The society is not a party to the lawsuit. Milmoe pushed for the County Council to restrict sewer service for large private institutional facilities in 2005.

The lawsuit mentions that a Catholic church next to Bethel’s Brink Road land requested public water and sewer service in 2001, and received it, according to the filing.

Gabriel Nmah, finance director for Bethel, said since the Catholic church was granted public sewer service, and Bethel was denied, there is a ‘‘racial tone” to the decision. Most of the Bethel’s 2,000 members are black. Greene said he did not know the racial breakdown of the Catholic church.

‘‘That allegation is not just about race but treatment of different religions,” he said.

Royalty said Bethel’s application violated the county’s water and sewer plan because pipes would traverse nearby properties that are not eligible for water and sewer service. He said that the Catholic Church met the requirements of the water and sewer plan.