Baltimore County faces federal lawsuits alleging religious discrimination in zoning cases

Baltimore County government is facing a pair of federal lawsuits alleging religious discrimination after it denied proposals for two new houses of worship — a Baptist church in Hunt Valley and a synagogue in Pikesville.

Hunt Valley Baptist Church and the Congregation ARIEL Russian Community Synagogue each claim violations of the Constitution and a 2000 federal law written to protect religious institutions from discrimination in zoning.

The plaintiffs say the county Board of Appeals' denial of the projects "severely impedes and prevents" the congregations' exercise of freedom of religion.

Both are represented by a Washington law firm that has represented churches, synagogues and mosques in land-use disputes across the country.

Attorney Roman P. Storzer said county zoning regulations for houses of worship are "broken," and that the projects were rejected on "very subjective and, we believe, arbitrary grounds."

Typically, disputed land-use decisions play out in the state court system, not in federal court.

A county spokeswoman declined to comment on the pending litigation — but said county attorneys believe the lawsuits are the first filed against Baltimore County under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, the 2000 legislation.

The county has not filed a response in court to the allegations in the lawsuits.

Both projects drew fierce opposition from neighbors, who said the houses of worship would not fit with their communities' rural feel.

Storzer said county officials gave too much weight to the opponents when deciding the case.

The Baptist church sought to build a 1,000-seat facility with classrooms, offices, a fellowship hall and gymnasium on a 17-acre farm on Shawan Road. The site is adjacent to St. Mary Antiochian Orthodox Church.

The synagogue proposed an 8,000-square-foot center with an 88-seat sanctuary and a social hall on a 3-acre site in the 8400 block of Stevenson Road. They planned to maintain an existing house as a home for their rabbi.

The Board of Appeals — a seven-member panel appointed by the County Council — found the proposals did not satisfy county regulations. The board rejected the church's plan in July 2016 and the synagogue's in January.

Gus Rodriguez, assistant pastor of Hunt Valley Baptist, said people can't find the current church off Cuba Road, a few miles away from where it wants to move. He said the church decided to pursue federal litigation "through prayer and counsel."

"We're just trying to utilize appropriately what we believe God has given us," Rodriguez said.

Members of Congregation ARIEL currently share space with Chabad Lubavitch of Maryland on Old Pimlico Road, "but these facilities have severely limited and restricted ARIEL's ability to conduct its religious programs," the plaintiffs say. Members can't hold Saturday morning Shabbat services, they say, because they don't have enough space.

Neighbors say their concerns are not about religion.

"We're not opposed to churches," said Bill Marlow, who has lived for about 20 years on Shawan Road, next to the proposed church site. "This is a pretty religious community to begin with."

Marlow said residents are worried about traffic congestion and the environmental impacts of a large church.

In the Pikesville case, the site is located in a mostly Jewish neighborhood. Ken Abel, who lives next door, said windy, hilly Stevenson Road and its lack of sidewalks "make any institutional project dangerous."

He opposed the synagogue.

"We followed a process laid out by Baltimore County to address those concerns," he said. "We went through that process and the county Board of Appeals agreed with us."

Abel said allegations of religious discrimination could present a new wrinkle in zoning decisions.

"Based on these cases, it would seem that whenever a religious institution that is unhappy as to how its particular situation intersects with Baltimore County's zoning rules, it will just file a RLUIPA lawsuit," he said.

County Councilwoman Vicki Almond, whose district includes Pikesville, weighed in on the lawsuit filed by the synagogue in an email this week to constituents.

"I strongly believe that Baltimore County should defend its zoning and land use regulations," the Reisterstown Democrat wrote.

"As a councilwoman, I cannot interfere in decisions made by the Administrative Law Judge or the Board of Appeals. I simply expect the county to abide by these decisions and to defend them as needed."

Proposals for religious buildings have sparked controversy elsewhere in Baltimore County.

Grace Fellowship Church announced this month it had scrapped plans for a 78,000-square-foot church on Seminary Avenue in Brooklandville.

Church leaders said the decision — after the church had spent more than $469,000 on planning — came not because of community opposition, but because their plans likely would not meet county parking regulations.

In 2014, the county bought 258 acres of land in Granite that had once been slated as a site for Baltimore's Bethel AME Church. Residents of the rural community had objected to the church's plans for a 3,000-seat sanctuary.

Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

alisonk@baltsun.com

twitter.com/aliknez

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
37°