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Redemption Community Church v. City of Laurel

United States District Court, D. Maryland

August 8, 2018

REDEMPTION COMMUNITY CHURCH, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF LAUREL, MARYLAND Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          PETER J. MESSITTE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         In 2015, Redemption Community Church (the “Church”), a non-denominational Christian church with currently between 15 and 20 congregants, purchased a property at 385 Main Street in Laurel, Maryland (the “Property”) with the intention of operating a coffee shop during the week and a house of worship on Sunday mornings. The Property is located inside the City of Laurel's Commercial Village Zone (“C-V Zone”), which since the date of the purchase has required houses of worship located on less than one acre of land to apply for and receive a special exception in order to obtain a Use & Occupancy (“U&O”) permit. On April 3, 2017, after renovating the Property, the Church received a U&O permit for a for-profit coffee shop. The Church never applied for and never received such a permit to host worship services. On April 5, 2017, the coffee shop opened its doors, and on Sunday, April 9, 2017, the Church held its first worship service there.

         On January 26, 2018, the Church received a cease and desist letter from the City of Laurel (“Laurel” or the “City of Laurel”) directing it to stop holding worship services or else be subject to a $250 fine per day. The Church immediately ceased holding services.

         On February 9, 2018, the Church filed a Complaint in this Court, alleging that Laurel's zoning provision requiring houses of worship located on less than one acre to obtain a special exception violates various provisions of the United States Constitution and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc et seq. On February 12, 2018, the Church filed a Motion for Preliminary Injunction, still pending, asking the Court to enjoin Laurel from enforcing the relevant provision of its zoning code. ECF No. 7. Laurel has filed a Motion to Dismiss, or in the Alternative, for Summary Judgment. ECF No. 22. Oral argument on the Motion to Dismiss was heard on June 5, 2018.

         For the following reasons, the Motion to Dismiss is DENIED. The Motion for Summary Judgment is MOOT.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Redemption Community Church is a non-denominational Christian church currently with a congregation of between 15 to 20 worshipers. Complaint ¶¶ 15, 18, ECF No. 1. It was incorporated in 1969 in Montgomery County, Maryland as a nonprofit corporation and was initially named the Covenant Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Id. ¶¶ 15, 20. Church members purport to have “sincerely-held religious beliefs that they are to regularly assemble with others to pray, study the Bible, sing religious songs, and share biblical insight.” Id. ¶ 21. A “particular calling” of the Church is to “bring the Gospel to the homeless and underprivileged in its community.” Id. ¶ 22.

         In order to fulfil its religious mission, in the summer of 2014 the Church began searching for a property that it could operate both as a non-profit coffee shop and house of worship. Id. ¶¶ 23-25. The thought was to operate a non-profit coffee shop on Mondays through Saturdays (the proceeds of which would be donated to local community organizations) and serve as a house of worship on Sundays. Id. ¶¶ 25-26.

         Between late 2014 and early 2015, the Church located a property that it believed met its desired specifications. The Property was located at 385 Main Street, Laurel, Maryland 20707. Id. ¶ 27. The Property was a three-story structure situated on a 5, 115 square-foot lot, which was less than one acre, and had approximately 4, 500 square feet of usable space. Id. ¶¶ 28-29. The Property was advertised as a “Structure Type” for “Retail, Church/School, Office, [or] Office Building” uses. Complaint Ex. 1, ECF No. 1-3. The Property was “centrally located in the area in which the Church desire[d] to minister”, namely, the heart of Laurel's Commercial Village zone. Complaint ¶ 31.

         On or about February 6, 2015, Trustees of the Church visited the Property, accompanied by the Fire Marshal of the City, and allegedly communicated to him their desire to use the location both as a non-profit coffee shop and house of worship. Complaint ¶ 32. Very soon thereafter, on February 17, 2015, the Church signed a Purchase Agreement for the Property, and on March 18, 2015, it closed on the Property for approximately $470, 000. Id. ¶¶ 39, 40.

         In preparation for its purchase of the Property, on February 12, 2015, the Church applied for a parking waiver pursuant to Section 20-16.6 of Laurel's Unified Land Development Code (the “Code”), since the number of parking spaces available at the Property was less than that mandated by the Code. Id. ¶¶ 36, 38. The Church asserts that such parking waivers are normally required for institutions in the C-V zone due to the limited available parking on Main Street and the surrounding properties. Id. ¶ 36. On March 10, 2015, Church representatives testified at a Planning Commission meeting, after which their application for the parking waiver was approved for both the proposed coffee shop and church services. Id. ¶40; see also Complaint Ex. 2, ECF No. 1-4. However, on April 14, 2015, City officials revoked their approval of the waiver on the grounds that Church representatives had purportedly submitted evidence at the hearing that contradicted representations it had made in the waiver application. Complaint ¶ 50; Complaint Ex. 3, ECF No. 1-5.

         An additional hurdle to the Church's plans came as a result of changes to Laurel's zoning regulations. On February 9, 2015, three days after Church Trustees had visited the Property along with the City Fire Marshal, the Laurel City Council proposed Text Amendment 237 to the City Code, which would exclude non-profit businesses from operating within the C-V zone. Complaint ¶ 42. On March 9, 2015, Amendment 237 passed. Id. ¶ 43.

         Then, on March 23, 2015, the City Council proposed Text Amendment 238, which would amend the Code's “Table of Commercial Uses” (the “Table”). Id. ¶ 44; Motion to Dismiss (“MTD”) Ex. I, ECF No. 22-11. The Table references various types of commercial uses in Laurel's six commercial zones, indicating as to each use whether it is “permitted” or not permitted in a given zone; “permitted, subject to the approval of a special exception”; “permitted as an accessory building”; or “prohibited.” Complaint ¶ 90; Complaint Ex. 11, ECF No. 13. Amendment 238 proposed changing “house[s] of worship”[1] “[l]ocated on a lot less than 1 acre in size” from a “permitted” use to a “permitted [use], subject to the approval of a special exception.” Complaint ¶¶ 92-95; Complaint Ex. 11, ECF No. 1-13. The Special Exception application requires an applicant to fill out a two-page application and attach: a Statement of Justification, an Existing Conditions Site Plan or Survey, a Proposed Site Plan or Survey (created by a professional engineer or surveyor), and a non-refundable $2, 000.00 filing fee. Complaint ¶ 46; ECF No. 39-2.

         On April 27, 2015, Amendment 238 passed. Complaint ¶ 47. The Amended Code not only incorporated the special exception requirement for houses of worship but also provided that the following institutions would be deemed “permitted” without a special exception: art and cultural centers; cinemas and “legitimate theater[s]”; open microphone venues; “Disc Jockeys”; karaoke; poetry or dramatic readings; theatres or halls for the performing arts, symphony, or community theatre; health clubs or spas; libraries, museums, and similar “noncommercial institutions”; “standard” restaurants; and schools for “business, art, music and similar uses.” Complaint ¶ 91; Complaint Ex. 11, ECF No. 1-13.

         On April 14, 2015, Church representatives “informally met” with two City Planning Commissioners, Bill Wellford and Mitzi Betman, who allegedly told the representatives that a parking waiver and U&O permit were only required with respect to “the preponderance of use of a given property.” Complaint ¶ 51. Based on this understanding, and because of the passage of Text Amendment 237, the Church submitted a second application for a parking waiver based on the Property being used primarily as a for-profit coffee shop, Id. ¶¶ 58-59, and on December 8, 2015, the Church was granted the waiver. The Church then undertook what became a sixteen-month renovation of the Property. Id. ¶¶ 60-61. In October, 2016, when renovation was substantially complete, the Church applied for a U&O permit for a for-profit coffee shop, which it received on April 3, 2017. Id. ¶¶ 61-63. The Church did not file for a parking waiver or U&O permit to operate as a house of worship.

         On April 5, 2017, the Property began operating as a for-profit coffee shop Mondays through Saturdays, and on Sunday, April 9, 2017, the Church held its first worship service there. Id. ¶¶ 65-66.

         On July 11, 2017, a Church representative visited the Laurel Municipal Center to request a revised U&O permit, since the one granted to the Church on April 3, 2017 contained multiple typographical errors (for example, it misstated the building's square footage). Id. ¶¶ 64, 68. On July 27, 2017, while coming in to pick up the revised U&O, a Church representative was purportedly asked by City Planner Monta Burrough, “Are you doing church at the Property?” and “Are you having worship at the Property?”, to which the Church representative allegedly responded that indeed “It held some worship gatherings on Sundays.” Id. ¶¶ 69-71. That same day, the City sent a letter to the Church ordering that it cease and desist from holding worship services. Id. ¶ 72.

         On August 2, 2017, Church representatives met with City Planner Burrough to discuss the cease and desist letter. Id. ¶ 76. During the meeting, Burrough reportedly asked the representatives if “people raise hands for worship at the Property?” [suggesting concern over an unusual form of worship?] and “Can you meet somewhere else until this blows over?” Id. ¶ 77.

         Despite the cease and desist letter and the meeting with Burrough, the Church continued to conduct worship services at the Property on Sundays until January 26, 2018, when it received a second cease and desist letter from the City. Id. ¶¶ 80-81. This letter noted that the Church had been “operating as a House of Worship and hosting live entertainment without a City of Laurel Special Exception approval, which is in violation of the City of Laurel Unified Land Development Code Section Sec. 20-22 and is in violation of your Use and Occupancy permit.” Complaint Ex. 9, ECF No. 1-11 (emphasis in original). The letter directed the Church to “cease immediately operating as a House of Worship and hosting live entertainment or the property owner will accumulate fines of $250 a day.” Id. Following receipt of this second cease and desist letter, the Church stopped conducting worship services at the Property. Complaint ¶ 82.

         On February 9, 2018, the Church filed suit against Laurel in this Court, asserting violations of the United States Constitution and RLUIPA. Specifically, the Church has alleged that the City's amended Code impermissibly discriminates against houses of worship by requiring those located on less than one acre located within the C-V Zone to obtain a special exception while not requiring the filing of a special exception for similarly situated secular assemblies and institutions. The Church argues that the Code, both on its face and as applied to its operation within the C-V zone, violates RLUIPA's “Equal Terms” provision, “Nondiscrimination” provision, and “Substantial Burden” provision, as well as the Free Exercise Clause, the Free Speech Clause, the Right to Peaceable Assembly, the Establishment Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.

         Soon after filing its Complaint, the Church filed a Motion for Preliminary Injunction, asking the Court to enjoin Laurel from enforcing the special exception requirement of its zoning code. ECF No. 7.[2]

         On March 20, 2018, Laurel filed a Motion to Dismiss, or in the Alternative, for Summary Judgment, arguing first that the Church's claims are not ripe because it has never applied for a special exception, ECF No. 22, and, second, that the Church has failed to state a claim under RLUIPA and the Constitution because it has not shown that houses of worship are subject to unequal treatment under the zoning laws. Id. The Court heard oral argument on the Motion to Dismiss on June 5, 2018.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         To survive a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a plaintiff must plead facts sufficient to “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 554, 570 (2007). This standard requires “more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). Although a court will accept factual allegations as true, “[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Id. Indeed, the court need not accept legal conclusions couched as factual allegations or “unwarranted inferences, unreasonable conclusions, or arguments.” E. Shore Markets, Inc. v. J.D. Associates Ltd. P'ship, 213 F.3d 175, 180 (4th Cir. 2000). In the end, the complaint must contain factual allegations sufficient to apprise a defendant of “what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (internal quotations and citations omitted).

         Under Rule 56(a), “[t]he court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). This does not mean, however, that “some alleged factual dispute between the parties” defeats the motion for summary judgment. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986) (emphasis in original). Rather, “the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact.” Id. (emphasis in original).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A.

         Laurel argues that the Court should dismiss the Complaint for lack of ripeness because the Church never applied for, and was never denied, a special exception. Laurel cites Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City, 473 U.S. 172 (1985), in which the Supreme Court held that a claim regarding the application of government regulations to property “is not ripe until the government entity charged with implementing the regulations has reached a final decision regarding the application of the regulations to the property at issue.” Id. at 186.

         The Church responds that Laurel's reliance on Williamson County is misplaced because Williamson County does not apply to facial claims, and because the Church sustained its injury when it was required to apply for a special exception, not when it was denied one.

         The Fourth Circuit has long held that facial challenges to land-use regulations are ripe without a “final decision” on the law's application to the property. Beacon Hill Farm Assocs. II Ltd. P'ship v. Loudoun Cty. Bd. of Su'rs, 875 F.2d 1081 (4th Cir. 1989). In Beacon Hill, a landowner challenged a newly-passed zoning ordinance restricting development in Loudoun County's environmentally sensitive land areas. The district court dismissed the case on the grounds that the claims were not ripe for adjudication since the plaintiff had not submitted development plans for its property nor had it applied for a special exception to the ordinance. The Fourth Circuit reversed, finding that the facial attack on the ordinance “should not have been dismissed as being premature”, noting that “there is an important distinction between a claim that the mere enactment of a statute is unconstitutional and a claim that the particular impact of government action on a specific piece of property is unconstitutional.” Id. at 1084-85. (internal quotation marks omitted). Whereas the latter, as-applied claims, may require a final decision, the former, facial claims, do not. Id. 1083-84.

         Because in the present case the Church's facial claims are brought under the theory that the passage of the zoning ordinance violates the Constitution and RLUIPA, under Beacon Hill, the ...


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