Council Loses another Court Battle with Reaching Hearts International

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U.S. District Court Judge Roger Titus ruled that the Prince George’s County Council must revisit its decision on Reaching Hearts International (RHI) because he said it didn’t comply with an earlier court ruling.

New Council Chairwoman Andrea C. Harrison, D.-Dist. 5, released a statement saying the council will be working on this matter in the near future.

“The Prince George’s County Council has received the order of U.S. District Judge Roger W. Titus, who ruled today in the case involving Reaching Hearts International,” Harrison said. “The Council, currently in recess, is reviewing the order and will address this matter in the new Legislative Year, which begins in January.”

The church has been fighting an uphill battle since purchasing the property in West Laurel. It has fought the county council in federal courts for nearly a decade to try to get its application for sewer service on its property approved.

The push against the church was initially led by former Councilman Thomas Dernoga, D.-Dist. 1 who rallied against the Seventh -day Adventist church in his district and has been taken over by his replacement Mary Lehman. It is this systemic opposition to the church that has Titus wondering about the council’s real purpose.

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“The members of the Prince George’s County Council need to step back and ponder what structure and tradition have brought them in this case, and what it may produce for them in the future,” Titus wrote in his opinion. “The prior decisions of the County Council have already cost the county $3.7 million dollars plus interest, which has now been paid, and another $872,122.17 in legal fees and expenses which, by any measure, is a fairly high price to pay in a period of economic distress.”

In 2008, a jury ruled that there was sufficient evidence that the county’s decision to deny RHI’s previous applications was motivated, in part, by religious discrimination violating RHI’s religious exercise under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The jury also ruled that the county “failed to offer a compelling interest” in denying RHI’s 2003 and 2005 applications in enacting CB-83-2003, which changed reduced lot coverage and green areas for nonresidential uses within 2,500 feet of water reservoirs.

Despite this, the county again only approved parts of RHI’s application in September continuing the fight in court. A decision that Titus gave the council 60 days to reconsider in what he’s optimistic the council will be fair.

“The Court is cautiously optimistic that the County Council will, at last, give fair consideration to RHI’s application and bring this matter to an end,” Titus wrote.

“However, should it, upon court ordered reconsideration, again deny the application, the Court will permit discovery to be completed and a trial to be held on the question of whether the 2011 actions of the County constitute a continuation of the discrimination that resulted in a multi-million dollar verdict against the County, including consideration of additional damages, legal fees and costs.”