Montgomery panel intervenes in church matters; Task force mediates residents' conflicts with congregations


SILVER SPRING -- When a church and its neighbors tussle, an issue as simple as parking can become a constitutional battle of religious freedom vs. property rights.

Once automatically respected as a physical and spiritual cornerstone of a community, houses of worship are being treated more like commercial ventures by some nearby homeowners.

"Church isn't what it used to be," says William Hussman, chairman of the Montgomery County Planning Board. "They were once more compatible neighbors, when their activities were more traditionally based."

After a failed attempt last year to write rules for churches, the Montgomery County Council has devised an unconventional solution: a task force of citizens and clergy to mediate disputes.

"Legislation is not always the answer for living together, and court is a longer, more costly process," says Bessie Robinson, chairwoman of the Intervention Task Force. "We hope to be the conduit for getting both parties together to talk."

The task force -- consisting of three members from religious groups and two from the community -- doesn't have any powers except those of persuasion. It begins mediation with the approval of the two parties.

One of its first cases could involve a Montgomery County mosque at the intersection of two country roads in Silver Spring.

Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam attracts about 1,200 worshipers each week, but once a year, in late June, the number swells to 5,000 during a three-day national convention.

The mosque leadership alerts the neighbors and hires police officers. Area churches open their parking lots.

Still, "there is some uneasiness on the part of neighbors because of the [traffic] delays and sometimes noise," acknowledges Shukoor Ahmed, former president of the movement's Maryland chapter.

Complaints have filtered to Montgomery County Council President Isiah Leggett, who has turned the issue over to the Intervention Task Force.

Ahmed says he has spoken with Leggett several times about the mediation service. The mosque is looking for another site for its convention, but hasn't ruled out meeting with task force members.

"The more you engage with your neighbors, the more you understand each other," Ahmed says.

The mediation idea is intriguing to officials in other counties, who say they are uncomfortable trying to regulate religion, but feel an obligation to protect homeowners.

"It's a balancing act," says Anne Arundel County Councilman John J. Klocko III, who championed successful legislation in 1996 to require more review before me- ga-churches are built. The law has not been used.

"Religion takes on so many different forms that it's very accurate to say that one piece of legislation doesn't address every problem: community needs, property rights and traffic," he says. "This [task force] is a creative response."

Mega-churches, with 500- to 2,000-seat sanctuaries, schools, athletic facilities and community centers, have led to neighborhood friction and opposition in several Maryland communities.

In Baltimore County, plans for churches in Granite and Kingsville are opposed by residents who fear being overwhelmed by traffic. Anne Arundel officials began wrestling in 1996 with a 1,500-seat mega-church proposal for Davidsonville that remains unresolved.

Not all criticism has been heaped on large places of worship.

The Montgomery task force has received complaints about start-up churches that meet in homes.

"It's a very fine line," says the Rev. Douglas Jones, a task force member. "Where is the line between you coming over to my house for Bible study and prayer and being a church?

"Each situation is unique," he says. "But we're better off with 100 unique solutions than having one legislative one that no one is particularly happy with."

Neighborhoods are not without blame, Robinson says. Congregations are upset by vandalism and people using their yards and parking lots without permission.

Religious diversity can also be a hurdle to understanding.

"If you set a mosque next door to you and you don't know what Ramadan is, you're going to have trouble," Jones says. "When you don't know people, you tend to be suspicious."

Potential solutions are cause for dispute, as Robinson knows all too well.

Parker Memorial Baptist Church, where she is director of operations, wants to move from its small, four-building complex on a residential street in Takoma Park to 12.5 acres near Burtonsville.

Residents unsuccessfully fought the move to their area. Now, bad feelings exist before the first shovel of dirt has been turned.

Robinson doesn't know whether the task force will be able to break through church-neighborhood suspicions to make a difference in other cases.

"We'll probably see the same groups again on issues," Robinson says. "But we hope to get to the point where they'll talk it out between themselves and not need us."

Pub Date: 1/15/99

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