In the wake of a federal lawsuit filed in February, the city of Laurel has reversed unconstitutional changes to its zoning laws that were intended to stop a church from holding Sunday worship services and serving the underprivileged in the community. The city also made changes to other commercial zones to eliminate the possibility of any similar legal problems there in the future.
At issue was 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 changes forced houses of worship to submit to an expensive, time-consuming, and uncertain special exception process that wasn’t imposed on nonreligious organizations.
“The government can’t discriminate against churches simply because they are religious,” said Christiana Holcomb, Alliance Defending Freedom Legal Counsel. “The city told Redemption Community Church to either stop holding worship services or pay severe fines, but this lawsuit prompted officials to understand that both federal law and the First Amendment prohibit this sort of discrimination. The church is now free to worship in and serve the community from its own building on the same terms as everyone else.”
Under the previous zoning code, if someone wanted to sing secular songs or host a karaoke bar in downtown Laurel, they could do so; but if they wanted to gather and sing religious songs in a house of worship, they had go through a pricy and cumbersome special exemption process. After the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland refused the city’s request to dismiss the church’s lawsuit in August, Laurel officials agreed to revise the zoning codes to eliminate the legal and constitutional problems. The church resumed worshipping in its building on Dec. 9.
“The government is constitutionally required to treat religious organizations equally, and these zoning code changes will help ensure that happens going forward,” added ADF Senior Counsel Erik Stanley, director of the ADF Center for Christian Ministries. “We are happy that the church has been able to return to worshipping in its building and serving the underprivileged from there, but we are equally pleased that the city’s zoning code fixes will ensure that other churches don’t experience the same sort of ordeal that this church did.”
The lawsuit, Redemption Community Church v. City of Laurel, will continue before a federal magistrate judge until it is formally resolved. 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.
— CNJ staff report