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Baltimore County settles religious discrimination lawsuit after U.S. appeals court ruling

Baltimore County has paid $375,000 to settle a religious discrimination lawsuit brought by a Milford Mill-based church after the county denied its plans to use a house on Old Court Road as a place of worship, and the U.S. Court of Appeals overturned a lower court decision to dismiss the case.

The payment puts to rest a lawsuit filed in 2017 by Jesus Christ is the Answer Ministries Inc. and the Rev. Lucy Ware which arose from Ware’s unsuccessful attempts to get county approval to operate a church on property in the 4500 block of Old Court Road; she bought the property in 2012 with the intent of using it as a church.

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The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, alleged that the county violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act after an administrative law judge denied Ware’s petition to use a residential home as a church, and the county Board of Appeals declined to review Ware’s second, modified plan to do so.

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.

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Neighbors had complained to the county about cars parked on the grass when Ware held church services and a cookout for about 40 guests in the fall 2012. During an administrative law judge hearing regarding Ware’s petition to use the house as a church, they made openly racist comments about Ware, who is from Kenya, and her congregants, who are largely of African descent, according to federal court documents.

“Since the hearing, neighbors have subjected the Church and its members to a sustained barrage of harassment, including racial slurs,” according to an opinion written by Judge Albert Diaz, who presided over the case in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

The church also has been burglarized and vandalized, Diaz wrote.

An administrative law judge denied Ware’s petitions. The Board of Appeals, the Circuit Court of Baltimore County and then the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland, the state’s second-highest court, also ruled against the pastor in 2015, with the zoning board writing that the proposed church went against the character of the surrounding community and that the proposed church “does not even minimally comply” with zoning requirements.

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Ware again applied to use the house as a church with a different plan, but the Board of Appeals refused to review it, according to federal court documents.

Ware and the church then filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court alleging the board’s refusal to review the site plan violated federal and state religious discrimination laws.

In its subsequent dismissal, the District Court said Ware failed “to exercise due diligence before acquiring and altering the property,” and her proposed site plan “disregarded the zoning requirements,” according to federal court documents.

But the U.S. Court of Appeals overturned that dismissal, writing in a 2019 opinion that the District Court “erred” when it threw out Ware’s case.

In siding with Ware and the church, Diaz wrote that the lawsuit “plausibly alleges a prima facie claim of religious discrimination.”

Diaz wrote he would not determine, however, “whether the neighbors’ animus ultimately swayed the Board’s decision” to dismiss Ware’s petitions.

Ware’s zoning application returned to the county appeals board following the court decision, which then approved it, according to Lawrence Schmidt, an attorney with the Towson-based law firm Smith, Gildea & Schmidt.

The church is now operating at its location on Old Court Road, Schmidt said.

Baltimore County is facing other ongoing religious discrimination lawsuits claiming similar violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal law protecting houses of worship from discrimination in zoning decisions.

Cases brought against the county by Hunt Valley Baptist Church and the Congregation ARIEL Russian Community Synagogue in 2017 are still in litigation, according to federal court documents.

And in September, a U.S. District Court judge denied an appeal challenging the dismissal of another land use-related religious discrimination lawsuit filed against Baltimore County by Friends of Lubavitch, an organization that operates a Jewish outreach program in Towson.

An attorney representing the Friends of Lubavitch filed a motion for the court to reconsider that order.

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