Prince George’s panel denies church’s permit request

A Prince George’s County Council committee on Thursday denied a water permit change that would have allowed a Seventh-day Adventist congregation to move forward in its nearly decade-long quest to build a church in Laurel.

The council’s committee on transportation, housing and environment voted 4 to 0 against granting a water permit category change to Reaching Hearts International Ministries. None of the committee members would elaborate on their vote.

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Pastor Michael Oxentenko of Reaching Hearts Seventh Day Adventist Church talks about the decision by a Prince Georges County Council Committee denying his church water permits to build a sanctuary on their 17-acre parcel in Laurel. Even though a federal judge ruled in the church's favor, county lawmakers still denied their request.

Pastor Michael Oxentenko of Reaching Hearts Seventh Day Adventist Church talks about the decision by a Prince Georges County Council Committee denying his church water permits to build a sanctuary on their 17-acre parcel in Laurel. Even though a federal judge ruled in the church's favor, county lawmakers still denied their request.

But the Rev. Michael Oxentenko of Reaching Hearts called the vote “religious discrimination.”

“They did the same thing to us in 2003,” Oxentenko said, referring to an earlier rejection of water and sewer permits by county officials. “We want to build a church. We want to exercise our faith. But we believe at this point that nothing we do is going to work.”

The church’s legal battle with the county began shortly after it bought a 17-acre parcel in Laurel in 2002. The church applied to the council, which also functions as the county’s zoning panel, for a “category change” to allow construction of a 900-seat sanctuary and school on Brooklyn Bridge Road. Reaching Hearts was denied.

The church then filed the first of several legal challenges, culminating with a 2008 federal discrimination lawsuit against the county under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. A jury found the county guilty of discrimination, and six months later U.S. District Judge Roger W. Titus affirmed the jury’s verdict.

In his decision, Titus wrote, “Thanks to the actions of the defendant, RHI’s exercise of religion in this case didn’t have a prayer, and the court will now . . . attempt to right the wrong.”

In a statement before Thursday’s vote, council member Mary Lehman (D-Laurel) said she had no objection to the church building at the front of the property. But she said the rear of the property is too close to the Rocky Gorge Reservoir.

“I believe that a change in the water/sewer category for the back 13.7 acres of the property would be inconsistent with the county’s mission to protect the reservoir from the adverse effects of the kind of large-scale, land-disturbing project Reaching Hearts International is planning,” Lehman said in her statement.

Lehman suggested the compromise of building the church at the front.

But Robert Antoinetti, one of the lawyers for Reaching Hearts, said that when church officials tried to split the parcel, the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission denied the application. He added that Lehman was influential in that decision because she argued against it as president of the West Laurel Civic Association.

Lehman did not respond to calls for comment.

The full council still must vote on the water permit. But Ward Coe, another lawyer for Reaching Hearts, said he has little faith in that body.

“The options are to go back to court and seek to have the county found in contempt of [the court order] that requires they process this application without discrimination and delay,” Coe said.

But John Barr, a lawyer representing a Laurel resident opposed to the project, said the council operated within the law.

“Judge Titus said you can’t discriminate,” Barr said. “The council followed the law. This is about following the water and sewer regulation.”

 
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