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Md. Church Says Prince George’s County Continues Discrimination

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WASHINGTON (AP) — A Maryland church that won millions in a religious discrimination lawsuit against Prince George’s County is back in court, saying the county continues to illegally block its decade-long effort to build a church.

Reaching Hearts International, a Seventh Day Adventist Church, filed a new lawsuit against the county earlier this week. The church bought 17 acres of land in West Laurel in 2001 but filed a religious discrimination lawsuit after county officials blocked its efforts to build. A jury awarded the church $3.7 million in damages in 2008, and a federal judge ordered the county to process applications that would allow the church to begin development.

Since the lawsuit, however, the Prince George’s County Council voted earlier this year to reject the church’s request to start developing its land by voting July 12 not to change the property’s current water and sewer category. The change would have allowed the church to extend water and sewer lines to its property.

Councilwoman Mary Lehman, whose district includes the church’s property, argued that a change could affect the capacity of a nearby reservoir and threaten water quality. Nearby properties are all zoned similarly to the church’s property, she said. Moreover, the front part of the church’s property is already zoned for construction, so the church’s building could be completed there, she said.

Those same arguments prompted the church’s initial lawsuit, which happened before Lehman joined the council.

“The County’s actions have, once again, fundamentally inhibited (the church’s) ability to practice its religion, by, among other things, preventing it from building its worship site,” the church’s lawyer Ward Coe III wrote in a new lawsuit filed Monday in federal court in Greenbelt.

The church also filed a motion for contempt, asking a judge to fine the county and immediately approve its application to extend water and sewer lines to the property.

Lawyers for the county have until the first week of August to respond to the contempt motion and slightly longer to respond to the new lawsuit. Coe said the county is incorrect in saying the church can build on the front portion of its property. There is not enough space and the current zoning does not permit development, he said Thursday.

County executive spokesman Scott Peterson said officials had not yet been served with the lawsuit and therefore could not comment.

Lehman was not immediately available for comment.

Reaching Hearts International currently holds religious services at a conference center in Spencerville. Its proposal for a new church on the West Laurel site includes a 72,000 square foot sanctuary, a 12,000 square foot gymnasium and a school. No construction has started.

“Almost ten years later they have not stuck a shovel in the ground,” Coe said

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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