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Church says Prince George’s plans still discriminate

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Seeking to end a long-standing battle with a church seeking to build on 17 acres in Laurel, the Prince George’s County Council on Tuesday offered an olive branch: Reaching Hearts International can ask for permission to build but only on a portion of its land.

But that wasn’t enough for church leader Michael Oxentenko, who said the council’s decision to offer water and sewer rights on only part of the property impedes the Seventh-Day Adventist congregation’s ability to worship and is tantamount to religious discrimination.

“We just want to be able to worship in freedom,” Oxentenko said. “Our religious expression is being hampered and contained.”

In July, the council rejected the church’s request for water and sewer rights, which it needs before it can formally apply to build. But the the proposal was revisited Tuesday after County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) asked the council to reconsider.

Behind the scenes, the Baker administration has pushed for an out-of-court resolution, fearing a repeat of a 2008 federal ruling that ordered the previous county government to pay $3.7 million in damages.

U.S. District Judge Roger W. Titus ruled that the county violated a federal prohibition against religious discrimination when it rejected the church’s application for water and sewer rights. He ordered the council to reconsider the matter, which it did in July. But the council again turned down the church’s request.

The council vote Tuesday would allow the church to hook up to public water and sewer lines on about seven acres and to build on about half that. The compromise was proposed by council member Mary Lehman (D-Laurel) and unanimously approved by the council.

“We did what the judge said we had to do,” Lehman said.

Reaching Hearts International holds religious services at a conference center in Spencerville in Montgomery County. Its proposal for a church in Laurel includes a 72,000-square-foot sanctuary, a 12,000-square-foot gymnasium and a school.

Lehman declined to comment after the council vote. But she has previously said the rear of the property is too close to Rocky Gorge Reservoir, a source of drinking water.

In recent weeks the council has retained an attorney, Albert Brault Jr. After Tuesday’s vote, Brault said he would ask the court to dismiss the church’s claims, which include a new religious discrimination case and a request that council members be found in contempt of court.

The church’s legal fight with the county began shortly after it bought the Laurel parcel in 2002. The church filed for sewer and water rights as a first step to building a 900-seat sanctuary and school on Brooklyn Bridge Road. The council turned it down.

The church then filed the first of several legal challenges, culminating in a 2008 federal discrimination lawsuit against the county under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. A jury found the county guilty of discrimination, and six months later Titus affirmed the verdict.

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