A federal court in Maryland recently rejected a church’s RLUIPA and related constitutional claims, finding that the religious group’s claimed harm was self-created. The case demonstrates the importance of due diligence efforts in connection with developing property in the context of a religious land use controversy.
The religious group, Jesus Christ is the Answer Ministries, Inc. (the “Church”), a nondenominational, multicultural Christian church, was established in Baltimore, Maryland in 1992 by Reverend Ware, a native of Kenya. Within the first 10 years, the Church had no more than 10 members and regularly met at Reverend Ware’s home. Over the next 10 years, the Church grew, and began to meet at an elementary school and hotel. With membership on the rise, the Church searched for a new site to purchase and use as a house of worship. In 2012, the Church believed it found a suitable property at 4512 Old Court Road in Baltimore, consisting of 1.2 acres and having a 2,900 square foot structure previously used as a home (the “Property”). Without consulting the zoning code, the Church purchased the Property after being told by a realtor that a church use was permitted on the Property.
Still without checking the zoning code, the Church converted three rooms of the existing structure into a worship area, added two bathrooms, replaced the roof, and replaced a small deck. The Church also created a new, gravel parking area at the rear of the structure and planted cypress trees to line the new parking area. The Church held its first service, a cookout, and a party in October of 2012.
Local residents complained about the Church’s use of the Property. In response, Baltimore County informed the Church that the Property had to comply with the zoning code before being used for religious worship. While a church is a “permitted as of right” use in the subject zoning district (the Density Residential 3.5 zone), there are certain buffer, screening and setback requirements that the Church did not meet. The Church filed a petition for a special hearing to allow its use of the Property and to vary certain parking requirements, but the Board of Appeals of Baltimore County (the “Board”) denied the petition because the Church’s site plan did not comply with the buffer and setback requirements and the use was “not compatible with the neighborhood.” The Church sued in state court, but the Maryland Court of Special Appeals affirmed the Board’s decision.
While the Church’s lawsuit was pending, the Church submitted a second petition to use the Property. The second petition came closer to complying with the buffer and setback requirements, but still fell short. The Board denied the second petition without a hearing as being barred by the doctrine of res judicata. The Church sued both the Board and Baltimore County in federal court, alleging that the defendants violated RLUIPA’s substantial burden and nondiscrimination provisions, along with the First and Fourteenth Amendments and state law.
The District of Maryland dismissed all of the Church’s claims. First, it concluded that because the Church had no reasonable likelihood to develop the Property at the time of purchase, the RLUIPA and First Amendment substantial burden claims failed. This was because “Plaintiffs’ failure to exercise due-diligence before acquiring and altering the Property, and subsequent proposal of a site plan that disregarded the zoning requirements, show that Plaintiffs did not have a reasonable expectation at the time Ware bought the Property that it could be used for the Church.” Rather, the extent of Ware’s due diligence was a realtor stating that a church use was a permitted use on the Property. As a result, the court determined that any “alleged burdens” were “self-imposed” by the Church.
The court also found that the Church’s nondiscrimination and equal protection claims failed because no facts had been alleged to support an inference that the Board had intentionally discriminated. Further, the zoning code provisions at issue were facially neutral in that they applied to all permitted uses in the subject zone, and Plaintiffs did not identify any similarly situated churches that had been treated better.
The court’s decision in Jesus Christ is the Answer Ministries, Inc. v. Baltimore County, Docket No. RDB-17-3010 (D. MD. 2018) is available here.