Religious Land Use Controversy Brewing in Laurel, Maryland: Can a Church Worship in a Coffee Shop?

by Robinson+Cole RLUIPA Defense
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Redemption Community Church (the “Church”) has filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Laurel, Maryland (the “City”), after the City issued a cease and desist order prohibiting the Church from offering religious services at the coffee shop it owns in the City’s community-village zoning district (the “CV Zone”).

According to the complaint, the Church purchased a 0.12 acre lot located at 385 Main Street in the City in March 2015 (the “Property”), with the intention of operating a non-profit coffee shop Monday through Saturday, and a house of worship on Sundays.  When the Church first entered into a purchase agreement for the Property, non-profit businesses and houses of worship were permitted uses in the CV Zone.  Less than a month after the Church entered the purchase agreement, however, the City amended its Code on March 9, 2015, to exclude non-profit businesses from the CV Zone, and again on April 27, 2015, to require a special exception for houses of worship located on less than one acre in the CV Zone.  Together, these amendments prohibited both of the Church’s originally intended uses for the Property.

In November 2015, the Church decided to reorganize as a for-profit entity, so that it could operate the coffee shop as originally intended.  It thereafter undertook extensive renovations, and the City issued it a use and occupancy permit to operate a for-profit coffee shop on April 3, 2017; the shop opened for business two days later.  Beginning on April 9, 2017, the Church began hosting worship gatherings of twenty or fewer people in the basement of the coffee shop for two hours on Sundays, while the shop was closed.

After some two months of these Sunday gatherings, the City issued a cease and desist order on July 27, 2017.  The Church, however, continued to hold small worship gatherings on Sundays, believing it was not in violation of the City code or its use and occupancy permit.  It was not until the City issued a second cease and desist order, on January 26, 2018, that the Church stopped holding Sunday worship gatherings.

In its Complaint, the Church alleges that the City’s April 2015 Code amendment (requiring houses of worship on less than one acre in the CV Zone to undergo “a costly and onerous special exception process”) discriminates against the Church on the basis of its religion, both on its face and as applied (nondiscrimination claim).  Moreover, the Church alleges this is unequal treatment to which secular assemblies and institutions, such as community theatres, health club or spas, libraries, museums, or schools for business, art or music, are not subject (equal terms claim).

The Complaint in Redemption Community Church v. City of Laurel (D. MD. 2018), available here, also asserts claims under RLUIPA’s substantial burden provision, the First Amendment’s Free Exercise, Free Speech, Free Assembly, and Establishment clauses, and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection clause.

Original photography by Mark, some rights reserved.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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