Posted by: Patricia Salkin | February 24, 2020

Fed. Dist. Court of MD Finds County Zoning Regulation Violated Equal Terms Provision of RLUIPA

This post was authored by Matthew Loescher, Esq.

Plaintiff Hunt Valley Baptist Church, Inc. desired to construct a fellowship hall and gymnasium, in order to support larger ministry activities, and to accommodate the more substantial crowds at weddings and funerals. Hunt Valley filed its Petition for a Special Exception, seeking approval for a two-phase project. Hunt Valley’s Petition was conducted by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), which granted the special exception. A non-profit membership organization, Valleys Planning Council, Inc., appealed the ALJ’s decision to the Board, which reversed the ALJ’s decision.

On appeal, the County argued that sustaining a RLUIPA claim in this case “would be an as-applied violation of the Establishment Clause.” Here, Hunt Valley’s claims were found to be consistent with the secular purpose identified by previous courts. Specifically, Hunt Valley alleged that the County departed from religious neutrality by unjustifiably allowing public schools as of right in the R.C. 4 zone, while requiring churches to undertake a more arduous process. In doing so, the County unjustifiably distinguished public schools from churches.

The County did not to contest that the special exception process constituted a facial violation of Equal Terms. Instead, the County argued that Hunt Valley’s claim failed because the R.C.4 zone included only one public school, which was constructed before the Baltimore County Zoning Regulations (“BCZR”) was enacted. The court noted, however, that other courts have found facial Equal Terms violations without requiring the plaintiff to identify a specific comparator that had already been treated more favorably. Furthermore, the County failed to put forward a rationale for the disfavored treatment of religious entities, since the purpose of the BCZR was to prevent contamination of the local water supplies.

In its defense, the County relied on expert testimony suggesting that Hunt Valley knew about the conservancy area easement before it purchased the property. The court found that to render a decision on this issue, a factfinder would need to: “make credibility findings regarding testimony from various experts and fact witnesses, consider whether and how easily the easement could be released, and determine whether Hunt Valley could have reasonably believed that the new church would be constructed.” Accordingly, summary judgment on this count was denied.

Hunt Valley Baptist Church, Inc. v. Baltimore County, Maryland, 2020 WL 618662 (D. MD 2/10/2020)

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