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Judge rules against Laurel's request to dismiss Ragamuffins case

Laurel Leader

A judge has denied the city of Laurel’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a local community church in a battle over whether the church has the right to hold services in the Ragamuffins Coffee House on Laurel’s Main Street.

Redemption Community Church is suing the city because the city is prohibiting the church from using its coffee shop space as a house of worship, according to court records.

The nondenominational church opened Ragamuffins Coffee House in April 2017, with plans to have the space function as a nonprofit coffeehouse and provide Sunday worship. It currently serves coffee every day expect Sundays and Mondays.

In February, Alliance Defending Freedom filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the church against the city of Laurel.

U.S. District Court Judge Peter S. Messitte denied the city’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit on Aug. 8 at the United States District Court for the District of Maryland in Greenbelt.

The church has received two cease and desist letters from the city “demanding the church to cease worship services,” one on Aug. 1, 2017 and another on Jan. 26, according to court records. The church stopped providing weekly gatherings.

According to the lawsuit, the coffeehouse is located in a commercial village zone, or C-V zone, on Laurel’s Main Street. Within this zone, houses of worship, convents and monasteries that are on lots less than 1 acre in size are required to file for a special exception, according to court records. However, nonsecular uses within C-V zones such as a library, school or theater, do not have to file a special exception.

The special exception includes a non-refundable $2,000 filing fee, a statement of justification, an existing-conditions site plan and a proposed site plan, with both comprehensive surveys requiring the services of an engineer, according to court records.

On March 20, the city filed a motion to dismiss the case stating there was a “lack of ripeness [in the case] because the church never applied for and was never denied a special exception,” according to court records.

The term “ripeness” refers to cases in which harm is asserted by the plaintiff but has not yet occurred, according to the website of the Legal Information Institute of the Cornell School of Law.

The court found the case to be “ripe for decision at this time,” and did not dismiss it due to the church’s claims “that the passage of the zoning ordinance violates” both the U.S.Constitution and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act , according to court records. The religious land use act, protects houses of worship and other religious institutions right to build, buy, expand or rent facilities.

Christiana Holcomb, the church’s attorney, said the court’s decision was encouraging.

“The church is one step closer to being able to worship in its own building on the same terms as everyone else and that is a good thing,” Holcomb said.

According to Holcomb, the court has asked for both parties to propose dates for oral arguments.

“We anticipate moving forward with that process,” she said.

The church’s pastor, the Rev. Jeremy Tuinstra, confirmed Holcomb is representing the church.

In less than two years, Alliance Defending Freedom, has won three U.S. Supreme Court rulings, including the high-profile Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, in which a Colorado cake shop owner declined to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.

Sandra Lee, an attorney representing the city of Laurel, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Audrey Barnes, a Laurel spokeswoman, previously said the city could not provide comment due to the pending litigation.

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