Reaching Hearts Intern. v. Prince George's County

Decision Date04 November 2008
Docket NumberCivil Case No. RWT 05-1688.
Citation584 F.Supp.2d 766
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Maryland

Ward B. Coe, III, Brian Travis Tucker, David William Kinkopf, Gallagher Evelius and Jones LLP, Baltimore, MD, for Plaintiff.

Mary Catherine Crawford, Brennan C. McCarthy, Peggie Nichole McWhorter, Rajeshanand Anand Kumar, Tonia Yvetta Belton Gofreed, Prince Georges County Office of Law, Upper Marlboro, MD, for Defendants.


ROGER W. TITUS, District Judge.

The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment envisions a land of religious diversity and tolerance, in which people of all faiths may freely practice the tenets of their religions without persecution or prejudice. In passing the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act1 ("RLUIPA"), Congress recognized that

the right to assemble for worship is at the very core of the free exercise of religion. Churches and synagogues cannot function without a physical space adequate to their needs and consistent with their theological requirements. The right to build, buy, or rent such a space is an indispensable adjunct of the core First Amendment right to assemble for religious purposes.

146 Cong. Rec. at S7774-S7775 (joint statement of Senators Hatch and Kennedy on the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000). The Framers and Congress in their collective wisdom were cognizant of the power and tendency of a majority to marginalize and discriminate against an unfamiliar or unpopular minority. Thus, our Constitution and RLUIPA provide important protection for religious entities when governmental action crosses the line and results in intentional discrimination on the basis of religion in violation of the First Amendment or the Equal Protection Clause or the imposition of a substantial burden on a religious exercise in violation of RLUIPA. This is such a case.


Plaintiff Reaching Hearts International, Inc. ("RHI") was formed in 2000 as a congregation of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. (4/15/08 Tr. 73-74). Seventh Day Adventists believe in the proclamation of the gospel around the world and that the coming of Jesus Christ is imminent. (Id. at 78). Part of their religious mission is growth of their congregation and spreading the gospel. (4/17/08 Tr. 102). To that end, Seventh Day Adventists practice public evangelism, bible studies, health training, discipleship and baptism by immersion. (4/15/08 Tr. at 79). They are active in community services, education, and vacation bible schools. (Id.). Seventh Day Adventists are Sabbatarians, which means that they believe that they are not supposed to work on the Sabbath, which falls on Saturdays, when their worship services are held. (Id. at 79, 83). They meet on other days of the week for worship-related services and activities. (Id. at 80).

A. The Lease in 2000 with the Cedar Ridge Conference Center

Because RHI did not have its own worship facilities when it was formed as a congregation, it entered into a lease in April 2000 with the Cedar Ridge Conference Center ("Cedar Ridge") in Spencerville, Maryland. (Pl.'s Ex. 1; 4/15/08 Tr. 75). RHI's lease payments to Cedar Ridge are approximately $80,000 per year, and the landlord has the right to terminate the lease. (Pl.'s Ex. 1). The lease limits RHI's use of the Cedar Ridge premises to Wednesdays from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. (Pl.'s Ex. 1; 4/15/08 Tr. 75).

Due to the limited hours that RHI may use Cedar Ridge, RHI's congregants are unable to have family weddings or funerals. (4/15/08 Tr. at 83). Moreover, they are unable to conduct sundown vesper services to welcome the Sabbath on Friday and to recognize its end on Saturday. (Id. at 81). There is no baptistry at Cedar Ridge within which RHI may conduct total immersion baptism. (Id. at 82). Seventh Day Adventist churches usually have an elementary school associated with them, but RHI cannot have one under its lease. (Id. at 80, 83). RHI also does not have a choir because its lease prevents it from storing equipment or practicing there, and Cedar Ridge does not have an organ. (Id. at 88-89).

The limited hours under the Cedar Ridge lease also prevent RHI from offering: office hours for its congregants to meet with their pastor; classes on health, bible instruction, and revelation seminars; vacation bible classes; and youth activities including Pathfinders, which is similar to Boy Scouts for both boys and girls. (Id. at 79, 81-83). Furthermore, due to the limited hours on Saturdays, RHI congregants must set up for services at Cedar Ridge on Saturdays in violation of their religious proscription against working on their Sabbath. (Id. at 83-84). This work requires RHI congregants to provide and assemble their own sound system (four speakers, sound board, cables, and microphones), arrange chairs for the bible study classes, rearrange the chairs for the services, set up their own communion implements for the Sabbath fellowship meals, and clean up the facility after the services and classes. (Id. at 76, 84-85, 87).

RHI's congregation is too large for Cedar Ridge; indeed, on special occasions, the congregation overflows into the foyer of the building, where those members may watch the worship service on television monitors. (Id. at 86). A Seventh Day Adventist church is viewed as a "hub" for its members, and for the congregation not to have its own church is "like not having your own home." (4/17/08 Tr. 97-98, 103).

B. The Purchase in 2002 of the Property at 6100 Brooklyn Bridge Road

In pursuit of a home of its own, RHI formed a building committee to search for a suitable site. (4/15/08 Tr. 89, 96; 4/16/08 Tr. 161-64). Property located at 6100 Brooklyn Bridge Road in Prince George's County ("the Property") appeared to suit RHI's criteria because it was a rural setting, which is similar to the type of setting in which other Seventh Day Adventist churches are located. (4/15/08 Tr. 91, 94). The 17.08-acre Property is comprised of two parcels of land, and there is a wooded area in the rear parcel, which borders property owned by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission ("WSSC") that is adjacent to the Rocky Gorge Reservoir. (Pl.'s Ex. 3; 4/15/08 Tr. 91-93). The Property is in the R-A zone, which, at the time of purchase, permitted the construction of a church as a matter of right with a lot coverage restriction of 50%. (4/15/08 Tr. 94). The Property was down the road and across the county line from Bethany Christian Church. (4/15/08 Tr. 101-02; 4/16/08 42, 116).

RHI retained JFW, Inc., to do a feasibility study on the Property to determine whether RHI could build a church and have the option for future expansion on the Property. (4/15/08 Tr. 95). The study cost RHI $10,000. (Id.). In its study, JFW concluded that RHI could build a church on the Property. (Pl.'s Trial Ex. 4; 4/15/08 96-97). RHI then proceeded to acquire the land on February 24, 2002, for $795,000, with RHI paying $195,000 as a down payment and taking out a $600,000 mortgage that was payable at 7.5% over 60 months. (Pl.'s Trial Ex. 4; 4/15/08 96-97).

C. RHI's Meeting with the West Laurel Community Association

After buying the Property, RHI hired a land use law firm, civil engineers experienced in land development, and a construction company that specialized in church construction to develop a plan for the construction of the church and school, which was to be completed in phases on the Property. (4/15/08 98-99). When the plan was developed, RHI met with the West Laurel Community Association ("WLCA"), the local community association. (Id. at 99). The Prince George's County Councilman for the District, Thomas Dernoga, was present at the meeting. (Id. at 100; 4/16/08 Tr. 115). During the meeting, the chair of the WLCA referred to Seventh Day Adventists "as being politically active" and that "it wouldn't be helpful to come into the community for that reason and that they should be very careful." (4/15/08 Tr. 100-01). There were also "very negative" comments about the Bethany Christian Church, which was up the road and across the county line from RHI's property. (Id. at 102). The WLCA's reaction to RHI's plan was "very hostile" in that the WLCA was concerned that RHI would "lie[ ] to them" by building a church that WLCA did not approve of aesthetically, as WLCA believed that Bethany Christian Church had done, and "there was nothing that [RHI] could possibly say at that meeting that would appease [WLCA] whatsoever." (4/16/08 Tr. 115-16).

D. Denial of RHI's 2003 Water and Sewer Category Change Application

Every Maryland county must develop and adopt a county water and sewer plan that covers "at least the 10-year period ... following adoption by the county governing body." Md. Ann. Code Env. § 9-503. The county plan is subject to approval by the State Department of the Environment. Id. A county plan is defined as a "comprehensive plan for adequately providing throughout the county ... water supply systems, sewerage systems, solid waste disposal systems, solid waste acceptance facilities and systematic collection and disposal of solid waste, including litter." Id. § 9-501(d). The purpose of the county plan is to ensure "develop[ment of] the water supply and sewerage systems in a way consistent with county comprehensive planning." Code of Maryland Regulations (hereinafter "COMAR") The plans must include a detailed map of the county that delineates the areas served by community water and sewerage systems and designates all land into one of the six water categories and one of the six sewer categories. COMAR The categories range from the lowest (category 1 which applies to land currently served by public water and sewer systems) to the highest ...

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