Verdict for Laurel Church Is Upheld

By Ruben Castaneda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 20, 2008

A federal judge this month upheld a jury verdict that awarded more than $3.7 million to a Seventh-day Adventist church after jurors found that the Prince George's County government discriminated against the church by blocking its efforts to build a sanctuary in Laurel.

In a 50-page decision, U.S. District Judge Roger W. Titus affirmed the jury's April verdict, which found that county officials used zoning regulations "to keep African American churches out of the county" and to keep such churches from expanding, an allegation the county denied in court.

At issue were plans by Reaching Hearts International to build a sanctuary on a 17-acre parcel of land on the western edge of Laurel.

"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 step in and attempt to right the wrong," Titus wrote.

In his ruling, Titus said that the conference center where the church has been holding its religious gatherings and other activities has been and will continue to be "insufficient" for the church to exercise its rights under the Constitution and the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000. That statute allows religious organizations to overcome local zoning and development rules if the government agency imposing them cannot show a compelling reason for any restrictions that burden religious practices.

Associate County Attorney Raj Kumar, who defended Prince George's against the lawsuit, said he has filed an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond.

The church's attorney, Ward Coe III, said he thinks the county will have a difficult time persuading the appellate court to reverse Titus. "You're always better off on appeal defending a good opinion," Coe said. "This is a really good opinion."

Kumar has also asked Titus to bar the church from moving forward with construction of the sanctuary until the appeal has been heard. Both sides are expected to file papers with respect to that motion.

In April, the jury in federal court in Greenbelt that granted the multimillion-dollar award found that the county's actions in barring the building of the sanctuary were motivated at least in part by discriminatory intent against a religious institution.

In recent years, the church has rented a conference center near Burtonsville, in Montgomery County, for about $80,000 a year.

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

In 2002, the church bought the 17-acre parcel in West Laurel for $800,000, with plans to build a sanctuary there.

The following year, County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) and the county's Department of Environmental Resources recommended that the sewer service category for the property be changed so the proposed church could connect to existing public water and sewer lines, according to the church's lawsuit. The change would have extended sewer service by two blocks to the site of the proposed church, Coe said.

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

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.

Dernoga did not return a phone call last week seeking comment. In April, several of Dernoga's constituents said they were opposed to the proposed project because it is too big for the neighborhood, not because of the racial makeup of the congregation.

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