LAUREL, Md. (BP) — Members of Redemption Community Church can grab a cappuccino and a scone in the building the church bought three years ago. They can hang out with friends, listen to live music or sit in on a coffee brewing class.
But they can’t go to church.
A zoning dispute has left the Laurel, Md., congregation in legal limbo in recent years. The church spent more than half a million dollars renovating a storefront into a coffeehouse that would double as a worship space.
But a change in local zoning codes — which seems aimed specifically at Redemption Community — means the church, formerly Covenant Presbyterian Church, can’t worship in the space without facing significant fines.
This spring, the church filed a lawsuit claiming the city’s zoning code is discriminatory. It’s one of the latest battlegrounds in what The Atlantic calls “the quiet religious-freedom fight that is remaking America.”
Zoning fights common
Disputes over property have become the most common legal battle for churches. Often those disputes involve rules that restrict where churches can be located.
A federal law passed in 2000, known as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), restricts the government from treating a church or other house of worship “on less than equal terms with a nonreligious assembly or institution.” The government can claim a legal exemption under the law, however, by showing it has a “compelling interest” and is using the “least restrictive means” to further that interest.
But few churches can afford lawsuits when cities or towns violate RLUIPA. Such suits are not only costly, but they can last for years. The Justice Department recently launched a new initiative to help churches involved in zoning disputes.
Zoning troubles for Redemption Community started about three years ago.
The church had sold its property in Burtonsville, Md., and planned a move about 11 miles east to the city of Laurel.
Moving to downtown Laurel, Redemption Community leaders believed, would boost the church’s ministry. The congregation had an active outreach program for the homeless, and leaders thought being in the city would help expand that ministry. The church also wanted to better minister to its neighbors, but felt isolated in the old location, pastor Jeremy Tuinstra told The Baltimore Sun last fall.
“Churches can be fortresses,” he told The Sun. “I would stand up and preach about loving our neighbors, and I didn’t know mine.”
The coffee shop’s name — Ragamuffins Coffee House — was taken from a book by the late Brennan Manning. Its website features this quote from Manning: “My deepest awareness of myself is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and I have done nothing to earn it or deserve it.”
“We hope you experience the goodness of God in this community of Ragamuffins, people changing by his love and grace,” the coffee shop’s website also says.
Before buying the building, church leaders checked the local zoning code and found a church would be permitted on the premises.
Within a month after Redemption Community bought the building, however, the zoning law changed, according to court documents. The congregation found it was not allowed to hold services in the building unless it obtained a special exception, according to the new zoning rules.
Getting the coffee shop off the ground took a hefty investment and some legal wrangling.
At first, the church planned to run a nonprofit coffee shop on Monday through Saturday and then hold services on Sunday, according to court documents.
The city’s zoning change threw a wrench into the plans. The new rule allows secular groups and businesses to hold events, but requires nonprofits or small churches to go through an extensive review process.
In response, the church organized the coffee shop as a for-profit venture. It got an occupancy permit to run the shop with no restrictions, according to court documents.
The church held Sunday services in its building when the coffee shop was closed. City officials objected and sent the church several cease-and-desist orders — leading the church to hold services at a local community center instead.
After trying to work out differences with the city, the church sued. Its lawyers say the local zoning code treats churches unfairly.
“The government can’t discriminate against churches simply because they are religious,” says Christiana Holcomb, a lawyer for Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal organization representing Redemption Community.
“Despite making every effort to work with the city to comply with its burdensome zoning changes, Redemption Community Church is now being told to either stop holding worship services or pay severe fines. Federal law is clear: The city’s discriminatory practices violate the law.”
City officials have denied any wrongdoing.
“The suit claims the City has discriminated against the church through the exercise of its zoning authority,” the city said in a statement, according to The Stream, a conservative Christian news site. “The City completely denies this claim.”
A hearing on the lawsuit was held last month, The Stream reported.
For now, the church seems focused on running its coffee shop and reaching out to its neighbors. The shop offers a wide range of coffees and snacks. It has a 4.5-star rating (out of five stars), according to reviews on Yelp.com.
“The place is marvelous: warming decor, fetching area, charismatic and attentive baristas, and down-to-the-last-drop worthy coffee (shout-out to their Chai Latte!!!),” one of the reviewers said.
The church’s pastor told The Baltimore Sun the coffee house is an essential part of Redemption Community’s ministry. “We’re trying to represent the tremendous love of God,” Tuinstra told The Sun.
Zoning tips for churches
Rob Hall, vice president of real estate services for Chicago-based National Covenant Properties, works with churches around the country on their facilities. He offered these tips on how to deal with zoning:
— Serve the community. Churches with a track record of providing necessary, additional services to a community will usually find that communities are more open to the church being there. Churches need to be seen more as lighthouses for the whole community and not clubhouses for members of a small club.
— Remember the personal touch. Churches should have face-to-face meetings with zoning officials when they are considering a location. They should not rely on what they find online with regard to zoning. It’s important to read the body language of the zoning official when you mention that you are a church.
— Talk to potential neighbors. Churches should reach out to neighboring property owners before those owners hear from a third party about the church possibly moving in. The church wants to be able to introduce itself directly and convince nearby property owners that the church will be a good neighbor. Having those owners on your side will often help to sway a municipality to grant the necessary zoning.
— Show up for hearings. Rezonings or special use permit applications will have a public hearing component. Church members who live in the community have a right to speak at those meetings in support of the rezoning or special use permit. Just because someone attends the church does not negate their opinion that having the church will be good for the community.
— Count the costs. Zoning battles can be costly and time-consuming. A church has to weigh the importance of fighting religious discrimination by municipalities against its overall ministry goal of leading people to salvation and helping them to become more fully devoted followers of Christ.