Laurel church can serve coffee but not worship; lawsuit brought against city

Laurel Leader

Redemption Community Church, a small congregation, purchased property on Laurel’s Main Street in March 2015 to function as a nonprofit coffee house and provide Sunday worship.

Now, the nondenominational church’s Ragamuffins Coffee House is open for business every day but Sundays and Mondays. Redemption Community Church, however, is in the middle of suing the city of Laurel because it is prohibited to use the space as a house of worship.

In February, Alliance Defending Freedom filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the church against the city of Laurel. ADF is dedicated to protecting and preserving religious freedom for all people of faith, according to Christiana Holcomb, the church’s attorney.

Since April 2017, the controversial law firm 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. The Supreme Court voted 7-2 to side with the owner, citing his first Amendment rights.

Ragamuffins officially opened for business on April 5, 2017, and four days later on April 9, the church began holding Sunday worship gatherings of about 20 people in the basement while the coffee shop was closed, according to the lawsuit.

On Aug. 1, 2017, the church received a cease and desist letter “demanding the church to cease worship services,” according to the lawsuit. Since receiving the letter, the church has stopped holding the weekly gatherings, “out of fear of city retribution,” the lawsuit states.

According to the lawsuit, the church is located in the commercial village zone, or C-V zone. Within this zone, a special exception process is required for houses of worship, convents and monasteries that are on lots less than 1 acre in size, according to the lawsuit. The city enacted the special exception process on April 27, 2015.

The coffee shop sits on 5,115 square feet which is approximately one-eighth the size of an acre.

“A city or local government should not use their zoning laws to discriminate against people of faith,” Holcomb said. “This is overt discrimination against this small church that just wants to love and serve its community.”

The special exception includes a non-refundable $2,000 filing fee that the church would need to pay to be able to use the coffee shop as a house of worship, according to the lawsuit. Additionally, the process requires a statement of justification, as well as an existing conditions site plan and a proposed site plan, with both comprehensive surveys requiring the services of an engineer,, according to the lawsuit.

Nonsecular uses within C-V zones, such as a health club, theater, restaurant, library or school, do not have to file a special exception, according to the lawsuit.

According to Holcomb, the city is asking for U.S. District Court Judge Peter S. Messitte “to dismiss the case.” A hearing took place at the United States District Court for the District of Maryland in Greenbelt in June.

Sandra Lee, an attorney representing the city of Laurel, confirmed that a motion has been filed to dismiss the case. Lee did not provide further comment.

Holcomb said that she does not expect the case to be dismissed but “procedurally, that is where we are at right now.”

In June, the Department of Justice announced its “Place to Worship Initiative,” that focuses on protecting houses of worship and other religious institutions right to build, expand, buy or rent facilities under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

Holcomb said ADF is “really encouraged that the Trump administration has taken note of this issue and has noticed [the] discrimination municipalities have against churches.”

According to Holcomb, the church requests the law firm to speak on its behalf. Effots to reach the church and Ragamuffins were unsuccessful.

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

jnocera@baltsun.com

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