Church Wins $3.7 Million in Bias Lawsuit

By Ruben Castaneda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 25, 2008

A federal civil jury awarded more than $3.7 million yesterday to a Seventh-day Adventist church after finding that the Prince George's County government discriminated against the church by blocking its efforts to build a sanctuary in Laurel.

At U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, the jury deliberated for about seven hours over two days before delivering its verdict. Jurors found that the county's actions were motivated at least in part by discriminatory intent against a religious institution.

In the lawsuit, the historically black church, Reaching Hearts, contends that county officials used zoning regulations "to keep African American churches out of" the county and to prevent such churches from expanding, an allegation the county denied in court.

"The jury found that the county did discriminate on the basis of religion," said Ward Coe III, attorney for the church. "I think the finding is consistent with the evidence."

Associate County Attorney Raj Kumar, who defended the county against the lawsuit, declined to comment because the matter is pending.

The award is not final. Judge Roger W. Titus scheduled a hearing for Sept. 8 to consider whether the county's actions were based on a "compelling governmental interest" and were the "least restrictive" actions the county could have taken.

In recent years, Reaching Hearts has rented a conference center near Burtonsville in Montgomery County for its religious gatherings, the lawsuit says. Coe said the church pays about $80,000 a year to rent the conference center.

The conference center is not large enough to accommodate church attendance, which ranges from 350 to 500 people, or the church's projected growth, the lawsuit says.

In 2002, the church paid about $800,000 for a 17-acre West Laurel property, where it planned to build a sanctuary.

The next year, County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) and the county's environmental agency recommended that the "sewer category" for the property be changed so the proposed church could connect to public water and sewer lines, the lawsuit says. The change would have extended sewer service by two blocks to the proposed church, Coe said.

In July 2003, the County Council voted to approve the change, but the council reconsidered the request and rejected it after receiving comment from council member Thomas E. Dernoga (D-Laurel), who represents the area, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit alleges that Dernoga acted because of pressure from constituents who wanted "to keep the perceived majority-African-American congregation" out of West Laurel.

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