United States District Court, D. Maryland
J. MESSITTE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
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
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.
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
following reasons, the Motion to Dismiss is
DENIED. The Motion for Summary Judgment is
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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” “[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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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 ...