Maryland Church Sues after City Zoning Laws Restrict Worship Services in Their Building

FILE - Lindsey Graham (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

A church in Laurel, Maryland, has run into a zoning roadblock. After having purchased a building three years ago and spending over a half a million dollars in renovations, Redemption Community Church is still unable to meet for worship service in the space.

It’s well documented that churches add value to communities. Besides providing important spiritual growth, churches often pour philanthropic dollars and actions into neighborhoods. Social services that would otherwise require tax dollars are funded and manned by church congregations. And that’s not to mention the rise in property values due to the presence of churches. The list of ways in which churches add value to communities goes on and on; you can read about the many benefits and ways in which churches improve their communities at this article published by the Acton Institute.

In fact, Redemption Community Church bought the property with the intention of serving the community in a needed philanthropic way. Baptist Press reports, “Moving to downtown Laurel, Redemption Community leaders believed, would boost the church’s ministry. The congregation had an active outreach program for the homeless, and leaders thought being in the city would help expand that ministry.”

Before buying the property, Redemption Community Church checked with the city and was assured that zoning laws permitted churches in the space. What RCC didn’t count on, though, were the zoning laws being changed after they purchased the building. The city served several cease and desist letters, forcing the church to begin meeting in a community center. The church attempted to work with the city and find a solution, but the city claims that there is nothing wrong with its zoning laws. With no recourse left, the church sued the city of Laurel, Maryland, claiming discrimination.

Baptist Press explains that this issue is not unique to Redemption Community Church:

Disputes over property have become the most common legal battle for churches. Often those disputes involve rules that restrict where churches can be located.

A federal law passed in 2000, known as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), restricts the government from treating a church or other house of worship “on less than equal terms with a nonreligious assembly or institution.” The government can claim a legal exemption under the law, however, by showing it has a “compelling interest” and is using the “least restrictive means” to further that interest.

But few churches can afford lawsuits when cities or towns violate RLUIPA. Such suits are not only costly, but they can last for years. The Justice Department recently launched a new initiative to help churches involved in zoning disputes.

As the church waits for the legal resolution, they are utilizing the space as a coffee shop called Ragamuffins Coffee House.