Three years after Reaching Hearts International Ministries won a federal appeal of a $3.7 million discrimination verdict against Prince George’s County, members of the Laurel Seventh-day Adventist congregation are still waiting to break ground on a church home.
Although Prince George’s is filled with “megachurches,” with memberships into the thousands, it remains a challenge to build a sanctuary from the ground up even for a 300-member church such as Reaching Hearts. One key hurdle: In order to build, the county council has to approve the permits granting the church water and sewer rights.
For decades, the process has been political in a county where church leaders have often been at odds with lawmakers, community groups and homeowners who have strong opinions about what should be built in their neighborhoods.
“We need a place to express our faith. We have been denied the basic right to worship, to gather and express our faith,” said the Rev. Michael Oxentenko, pastor of Reaching Hearts International. “This has been a struggle for six or seven years. We have no place to have our weddings, no place to have our funerals, no place to baptize.”
Reaching Hearts 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” that would allow it to connect water and sewer lines to the property.
Initially, Oxentenko and his congregation were hopeful that they would be granted the permits. But the council never moved to approve the application. As a result, the church filed a discrimination lawsuit against the county in federal court. The church said the council was using zoning regulations to prevent it from building.
U.S. District Judge Roger W. Titus ruled in favor of the church and an appellate court upheld the decision. But the council has yet to issue permits, and the lawyer for Reaching Hearts said that even a court decision hasn’t produced county action.
“We are where we were back in July of 2003,” said attorney Ward Coe III.
The church resubmitted its application in August 2010. There was a hearing in April, and church officials thought the issue would be on the agenda again last week.
“We heard that we are not on the agenda and we don’t why,” Coe said. “We proved they didn’t want a church there and won $3.7 million in damages. I hope that the county council does the right thing. They have been directed by a federal court to process the application without delay or discrimination.”
During the April hearing, council member Mary Lehman, who represents the area where the church would be built, listened to testimony without sharing her view. She has declined requests for interviews.
Council member Eric Olson, who leads the committee considering the issue, also declined to be interviewed. He said in a written statement that his panel’s inaction was because of a busy legislative schedule — not politics. He added that the committee will take up the Reaching Hearts application in about two weeks.
Oxentenko said the church wants to build a sanctuary and gym. But Barbara Sollner-Webb, vice president of the West Laurel Civic Association, said the property is too close to a major source of drinking water for the area.
“We are concerned about the environmental impact of this church,” said Sollner-Webb, a microbiologist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “The Rocky Gorge reservoir is a critical source of drinking water for residents in Montgomery and Prince George’s County, and the construction of this church creates a dangerous precedent for future projects.”
Sollner-Webb said Montgomery County will allow buildings to occupy only 10 percent of the land within 1,500 feet of a tributary to the Patuxent River, but Prince George’s allows buildings to occupy up to 33 percent of the land.
“This is a terrible precedent,” said Sollner-Webb, who also objected to how the church brought racial issues into its lawsuit. “How can a non-majority-black church win a discrimination suit? They are part of the Allegheny East Conference, which is majority black, but they are not a majority black church. This really hurts the cause of racial discrimination.”
Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III vowed that Reaching Hearts would be treated fairly.
“I am very much supportive of churches and development,” he said. “What many of our churches are doing is not just helping people within the four walls of the church. We are not going to treat the faith community any different then any other community.”