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City officials change zoning laws to stop worship services

BALTIMORE – Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys filed a federal lawsuit  on behalf of a church against the city of Laurel, Maryland, after officials changed zoning laws to stop the church from holding Sunday worship services and serving the underprivileged in the community.

At issue is a series of unconstitutional zoning code changes that city officials adopted to stop Redemption Community Church from operating in the city’s downtown area. The law forces houses of worship to submit to an expensive, time-consuming, and uncertain special exception process that is not imposed on secular organizations.

“The government can’t discriminate against churches simply because they are religious,” said ADF Legal Counsel Christiana Holcomb. “Despite making every effort to work with the city to comply with its burdensome zoning changes, Redemption Community Church is now being told to either stop holding worship services or pay severe fines. Federal law is clear: The city’s discriminatory practices violate the law.”

“The government is constitutionally required to treat religious organizations equally,” added ADF Senior Counsel Erik Stanley, director of the ADF Center for Christian Ministries. “Laurel officials allow secular groups such as cinemas, theatres, comedy clubs, schools, and health clubs to locate downtown, but not this small church that wants to serve its community. That’s not legal or constitutional.”

From the first time that the church’s trustees visited 385 Main Street, they expressed the desire to use the facility to serve their community as a house of worship, among other things. When the church trustees toured the 4,500-square-foot property in February 2015, houses of worship were allowed to operate in the city’s downtown “C-V Zone.” The property was also advertised as ideal for multiple uses including “church/school” purposes.

But almost immediately after the church purchased the property, the city changed its zoning code to remove houses of worship on less than one acre as permitted uses in the zone and allow them only if a special exception permit application was individually approved. Once the new restriction banning parcels less than one acre passed, Redemption Community Church was saddled with a $470,000 investment and shattered hopes for its ministry.

As the complaint notes, the city’s changes in its code were not neutrally applied and were only adopted to single out the church. In fact, the city planner, Monta Burrough, asked a church representative in July of last year if they were doing church at their property. Burrough then said that “There are eyes everywhere, and you are always being watched.”

The city then sent the church a cease-and-desist letter, threatening to fine it $250 per day if it continued to host worship gatherings during the weekend.

ADF attorneys filed the lawsuit, Redemption Community Church v. City of Laurel, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland. It asks the court to halt the city from enforcing its discriminatory code. John Garza of Rockville is one of more than 3,200 attorneys allied with ADF and is serving as local counsel in the case for Redemption Community Church.

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