A nondenominational Christian church and its pastor are suing Baltimore County in federal court for denying their plans to use a house on Old Court Road as a place of worship.
Jesus Christ is the Answer Ministries Inc. and the Rev. Lucy Ware filed the lawsuit Friday in U.S. District Court. In the lawsuit, Ware says she has faced hostility from neighbors because she is an immigrant from Kenya. It also alleges that county regulations unfairly burden religious organizations.
"Baltimore County's byzantine zoning regulations provide objecting residents myriad possibilities to derail religious land use development, even where such use is permitted in the relevant zoning district," the lawsuit states.
Both the county and its Board of Appeals, whose seven members are appointed by the County Council, are named as defendants.
County officials declined to comment on the pending litigation.
Ware's is the third federal lawsuit filed against the county this year alleging that zoning actions have blocked communities from practicing their religion freely. Hunt Valley Baptist Church and the Congregation ARIEL Russian Community Synagogue sued on similar grounds earlier this year.
This dispute is over a home Ware purchased in 2012 in the 4500 block of Old Court Road in the Milford Mill area, with the intention of using it as a church. Although the zoning classification allowed the property to be a place of worship "by right," Ware still had to apply for variances over setback and parking issues, according to the lawsuit.
Others in the residential neighborhood opposed her plans.
According to filings with the county Board of Appeals, neighbors complained to the county after cars parked on the grass when Ware held church services and a cookout for about 40 guests in the fall of 2012.
An administrative law judge denied Ware's petitions. The Board of Appeals and then the Circuit Court of Baltimore County also ruled against the pastor.
The case ultimately went to the state's second-highest court, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, which in 2015 upheld the previous decisions.
Ware again applied to use the house as a church with a different plan, but this year the Board of Appeals "refused to substantively review the application," the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit alleges that residents have made comments such as "You monkeys need to go back to Africa and I will do whatever it takes to make sure you don't stay here" and "they dance and holler like they're in Africa somewhere."
Ware was born in Kenya and moved to the United States in 1992.
"I believe I'm being kept away from my building because of where I come from," Ware said in an interview, adding that she feels the hostility has come from other black residents.
Ware has operated the church "largely as a prayer and evangelical ministry for the sick, homeless, drug-addicted and elderly," the lawsuit states.
In 2002, a small group of people began meeting in Ware's home on Liberty Road, but the church grew and needed more space, the lawsuit states.
Since then, its members have gathered in locations including a school, a hair salon and a hotel, according to the lawsuit. It has about 40 members.
All three lawsuits against the county claim violations of the Constitution and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal law meant to protect houses of worship from discrimination in zoning. Among the lawyers in each case is Roman Storzer, whose Washington law firm focuses on religious liberty cases.