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Church Sues City of Laurel Over Worship Regulations

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Redemption Community Church has sued the City of Laurel over a zoning regulation that prevents the congregation from holding religious services in the Main Street coffee shop it owns and operates.
At issue is a series of zoning code changes that include a new parking waiver requirement that the church’s pastor, Rev. Jeremy Tuinstra, believes is too expensive and alleges may constitute a discriminatory practice against houses of worship.

Formerly known as the Covenant Orthodox Presbyterian Church of Burtonsville, Redemption Community sold its original property and acquired its current property at 385 Main Street in March 2015, spending approximately $470,000 for the building and roughly $600,000 for renovations.

According to Tuinstra, the church began searching for a new property in the summer of 2014 in order to be closer to the homeless and underprivileged community it serves.

“We conduct classes and services to help this community, but the operational logistics of operating a van to continually transport these people didn’t make sense,” he said. “It was easier to relocate to Main Street where we could continue to serve them without the added expense and effort.”

At present, Redemption operates Ragamuffins Coffee House as a for-profit entity, but is prohibited by the city from holding church services in the building.

Bad Timing

Original plans called for the church to support its mission by operating a nonprofit coffee shop Mondays through Saturdays, and holding worship services for two hours on Sundays. The church intended to donate coffee shop proceeds to other nonprofit entities, such as Laurel Advocacy and Referral Services, the Laurel Pregnancy Center and the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center.

In February 2015, when Redemption Community began the process to acquire the Main Street property, Laurel’s Commercial Village (C-V) Zone allowed nonprofit businesses and houses of worship as permitted uses under the city’s Unified Land Development Code.
One month later, however, the City Council amended the code to exclude nonprofit businesses from the C-V zone, forcing Ragamuffins to transition to a different business model.

In fairness, that zoning action derived from so-called cleanup legislation that was already in progress, tied to zoning amendment changes set in motion in December 2014 by the relocation of another church, Royalhouse Chapel International, Maryland, into an Industrial-Commercial Service Zone on Braygreen Road.

Tuinstra said Redemption was not aware of the proposed nonprofit legislation when it purchased the Main Street property.
In April 2015, the council approved additional code changes addressing parking waivers, requiring a special exception for houses of worship located on less than one acre in the C-V zone.
According to the new regulations, the process requires a non-refundable $2,000 application fee and the hiring of an engineer to draft an existing conditions site plan and a proposed site plan.

Discrimination?

Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a Washington, D.C., law firm that specializes in religious freedom litigation, filed a federal lawsuit in February on behalf of Redemption Community Church.
“The government can’t discriminate against churches simply because they are religious,” said ADF Legal Counsel Christiana Holcomb. “Despite making every effort to work with the city to comply with its burdensome zoning changes, Redemption Community Church is now being told to either stop holding worship services or pay severe fines. Federal law is clear: The city’s discriminatory practices violate the law.”

“Laurel officials allow secular groups, such as cinemas, theaters, comedy clubs, schools and health clubs, to locate downtown, but not this small church that wants to serve its community,” said ADF Senior Counsel Erik Stanley, director of the ADF Center for Christian Ministries. “That’s not legal or constitutional.”

During his testimony on the zoning changes before the City Council in April 2015, Laurel Clergy Association President Rev. Kevin McGhee, pastor of Bethany Community Church, asserted that the city has a troubling history of making life difficult for churches within its jurisdiction.

“Decisions by [this body] drove Lighthouse Church from our community, cost City of Zion Church more than a year and thousands of dollars, and disallowed Faith Fellowship Church to meet on Main Street,” McGhee said.

“We all know the 300 block of Main Street has every business closed on Sunday morning; there’s really not a parking issue there,” said. “My heart breaks that [former Laurel Economic Development Officer] Karl Brendle is not here; we worked together under three mayors and dozens of council [members] to make those changes, and now you are reversing them.”

In a response to the lawsuit, the City of Laurel released a statement denying the claim that it discriminated against the church through the exercise of its zoning authority.

“The City of Laurel takes great pride in applying its laws equally and without discrimination to all residents, businesses and religious institutions within the city, and will continue to do so in the future,” the statement said. “Given the pending litigation, there will be no further comment at this time.”

Quality Java

In the meantime, business at Ragamuffins Coffee House has actually exceeded Tuinstra’s original expectations since opening in April 2017.
“We had modest goals for the beginning, and told ourselves we’d be happy just to meet payroll,” he said. “One of our goals was to be solvent after the one-year mark. We’ve had surprising growth over the past two months, and solvency is well within our reach.”
The coffee sold at Ragamuffins comes from La Colombe Coffee Roasters, in Philadelphia.

“First and foremost, they provide us with exceptional quality beans and provide excellent training for our staff on how to brew coffee, steam milk and other technical aspects of the business,” Tuinstra said. “It takes a very hard lesson learning curve to do things right, and they have provided excellent service for us.”

The coffee shop’s other food and beverage items are sourced from local producers, including Fresh Baguette in Rockville, Bottoms Up Bagels and JD Honeybee in Baltimore, and Razz Bundts and Blondies, in Laurel.

Roadblocks, Delays

“We feel it is our calling to cultivate community by ministering to the homeless and the less fortunate around us, and giving them a safe place to connect with others,” Tuinstra said. “We accomplish part of that through the coffee shop, but without a worship space, the rest of our identity is no longer being expressed.”

According to Holcombe, the City of Laurel filed a motion for preliminary injunction on March 23 and is asking that the case be dismissed.

The initial hearing in the case has been scheduled for June 5 at the U.S. District Court’s District of Maryland Greenbelt Division.

In his own testimony before the City Council in April 2015, Tuinstra explained that the church required no more than five additional parking spots beyond the seven located on Redemption’s property. He also cited verbal agreements with PNC Bank and BB&T Bank to use their lots on Sundays, as well as written permission to do the same given by Key West Family Dentistry.

“I think [Redemption Community Church] is creative and [is] the kind of thing that addresses blight on Main Street,” Tuinstra said. “I want to do good things for the city, and I have the capital to do good things for the city, but I keep running into roadblocks, obstacles and delays. I don’t know what to do next other than just keep playing the game, being patient and trying to find a place for our small church family to gather.”