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Baltimore County hires outside attorneys for religious zoning lawsuits

Baltimore County plans to spend up to $1.5 million on private attorneys to defend itself against a series of federal lawsuits claiming religious discrimination — including one that’s been supported by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The County Council is expected to approve a contract Tuesday with the law firm Whiteford, Taylor & Preston LLP to represent the county in five lawsuits that allege county zoning actions illegally blocked residents from practicing their religion freely.

Those suing the county include the operators of Chabad of Towson & Goucher, two churches in Hunt Valley, a Christian ministry in Milford Mill and a synagogue in Pikesville.

County attorneys believed it was prudent to retain the law firm “given the character and magnitude” of the cases, said T.J. Smith, spokesman for County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.

The lawsuits claim violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a 2000 federal law meant to protect religious institutions from discrimination in zoning.

In each of the cases, congregations faced opposition from neighbors over plans to construct new facilities or expand existing ones. Opponents in the various cases, which all occurred over the past several years, cited issues such as traffic and the size of proposed buildings.

Washington attorney Roman P. Storzer represents four of the five congregations: Jesus Christ is the Answer Ministries, Hunt Valley Baptist Church, Hunt Valley Presbyterian Church and Congregation ARIEL Russian Community Synagogue. Storzer formerly worked for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty as director of litigation. His firm has represented churches, synagogues and mosques across the country.

In Storzer’s Baltimore County cases, local officials denied congregations’ plans to build or expand places of worship, citing development regulations.

He said Baltimore County’s system for dealing with religious institutions is “broken,” and “doesn’t afford [religious congregations] the respect that they deserve in terms of their role in our society.”

“We believe that the county’s efforts would be better spent dealing with and working with its religious organizations, rather than spending resources fighting them,” Storzer said.

But others say they are pleased the county is defending its zoning laws.

“We’re very happy that the county is seeing fit to rigorously defend these cases,” said Paul Hartman, vice president of the Aigburth Manor Association of Towson, which has been involved in years of dispute with Towson Chabad over the expansion of a residence used as a religious center for students.

Last year, a circuit judge affirmed earlier decisions that a 4,000-square-foot addition serving as the Chabad center violated setback and zoning rules and should be razed. The order was placed on hold pending an appeal.

Michigan attorney Daniel P. Dalton, an expert on the federal religious land use law who represents congregations, said the law is intended to ensure that religious institutions are treated equally to secular institutions. But, he said, it’s “not a pass” on zoning rules.

The law “doesn’t insulate a religious institution from zoning,” he said. “Rather, it’s an equalizer.”

Last year, the administration of President Donald Trump announced a campaign to raise awareness of the federal law. The Department of Justice’s Place to Worship Initiative seeks to increase the agency’s enforcement of the law’s land use provisions and to “educate religious leaders, county and municipal officials, and the general public” about the law.

In announcing the campaign, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions said “government cannot discriminate against people based on their religion — not in law enforcement, not in grant-making, not in hiring, and not in local zoning laws.”

Sessions said the initiative would “help us bring more civil rights cases, win more cases, and prevent discrimination from happening in the first place.”

The Justice Department has weighed in on the case involving Jesus Christ is the Answer Ministries, filing a brief in support of the Milford Mill church. The congregation claims it was improperly denied approval to build a house of worship in a residential neighborhood. The Rev. Lucy Ware, an immigrant from Kenya, alleged in the lawsuit that residents have made comments such as “they dance and holler like they’re in Africa somewhere.”

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this month that a federal judge improperly dismissed the ministries’ lawsuit. The decision means the church can proceed with its claims.

The county wants the private law firm to take over primary responsibility of the cases involving ARIEL Russian Community Synagogue, Hunt Valley Presbyterian Church and Chabad, according to paperwork filed with the County Council. On the Milford Mill and the other Hunt Valley cases, the firm would assist the county law office.

The county attorney’s office cited the complexity and specialized nature of the litigation in asking County Council to approve the contract, according to a fiscal note by the county auditor. The contract with the law firm began in January. Under county rules, the administration must seek council approval once a contract exceeds $25,000.

The four-year contract allows the law firm to bill at a rate of $395 an hour for attorneys and $225 an hour for paraprofessionals and law graduates. It could be extended for up to seven years, with compensation not to exceed $1.5 million plus reimbursement for expenses.

The county awarded the contract through a competitive procurement process, and the law firm was one of two that submitted proposals.

Council Chairman Tom Quirk, an Oella Democrat, said he did not want to comment on the lawsuits because of the ongoing litigation.

alisonk@baltsun.com

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