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Racially Charged Religious Discrimination Prohibited Under RLUIPA

Although RLUIPA is mainly concerned with religious discrimination, racial animus towards a religious organization falls within the ambit of RLUIPA’s very broad protection. On February 7, 2019, the Fourth Circuit, citing the legislative history of RLUIPA, emphasized that “zoning board members or neighborhood residents explicitly offer race or religion as the reason to exclude a proposed church, especially in cases of black churches and Jewish shuls and synagogues.”[1]

Reverend Lucy Ware was born in Kenya where she was active in her family church. After moving to the United States, she founded Jesus Christ is the Answer Ministries, Inc. (the “Church”) in 1997, in Baltimore, Maryland. Although a nondenominational church, it has associated with churches in Kenya and the Seychelles and, more importantly, many of its congregants were born in Africa.

In 2012, Reverend Ware purchased a property which, as her realtor correctly advised her, is within a zoning district where churches are “permitted as of right,” provided that their site plans comply “to the extent possible with [applicable] requirements” and can “otherwise be expected to be compatible with the character and general welfare of the surrounding residential premises.”

Unfortunately, after holding a service and cookout, the neighbors complained to Baltimore County officials. The complaints resulted in the Church receiving notice that the property could not be used as a church unless the use complies with, among other things, setback and parking requirements.

The County held a hearing on Reverend Ware’s first petition, seeking complete relief from the zoning requirements, as well as variances from parking requirements. During the hearing, the following disturbing comments were made by several neighbors opposing the petition: (1) “dancing and hollering like they back at their home back in Africa somewhere”; (2) she can come over here from Africa … branch out from another church and put all of this in our neighborhood”; and (3) “they were out here dancing like from Africa. We don’t have that in our block.

After a second petition was denied, Reverend Ware and the Church filed a federal lawsuit against Baltimore County, asserting RLUIPA and various constitutional violations. The district court dismissed the complaint, and the case went up on appeal. The Fourth Circuit completely disagreed with the lower court’s decision, holding that the facts alleged in the complaint assert plausible claims for relief. According to the Fourth Circuit, the neighbors’ “remarks clearly display ethnic bias, and they can plausibly be understood as displaying religious biastoo.”[1]

If your religious assembly or institution has faced land use discrimination, please contact the attorneys at Dalton & Tomich who have successfully litigated these cases all across the country

[1]Id.(emphasis added).

[1]Jesus Christ Is the Ans. Ministries, Inc. v. Baltimore County, Maryland, No. 18-1450, 2019 WL 469715, at *6 (4th Cir. Feb. 7, 2019) (emphasis added).

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