Bethel World Outreach Ministries v. Montgomery County, Md.
09/18/2013: Northwest Land Law Forum Analysis of S&G client's victory in the Fourth Circuit against Montgomery County, Md.
Besides applying the wrong test, the Fourth Circuit found that the trial court required that defendant must also have “targeted” plaintiff and its beliefs. While such targeting is unconstitutional, RLUIPA does not require targeting under its “substantial burden” test, even if the burden is imposed in a neutral or generally applicable manner. If there be such a burden, the public agency must use the least restrictive means and fulfill a compelling state interest.
E. Sullivan, "Fourth Circuit Remands Dismissal of RLUIPA Claim," Northwest Land Law Forum (Sept. 18, 2013)
02/03/2013: The Washington Examiner reports on Bethel World Outreach Ministries' victory
The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a land dispute between the county and megachurch Bethel World Outreach Ministries will go to trial. The church sued the County in 2008, saying that the County was intentionally blocking the church from building a site in Gaithersburg.
Kate Jacobson, "Church's lawsuit against MontCo revived in appeals court," Washington Examiner (Feb. 3, 2013).
02/01/2013: The Daily Record reports on Fourth Circuit's Bethel World Outreach Ministries decision
The 3-0 decision by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals revives Bethel World Outreach Ministries’ lawsuit under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. . . . “When a religious organization buys property reasonably expecting to build a church, governmental action impeding the building of the church may impose a substantial burden,” Judge Diana G. Motz wrote Thursday for the appellate panel, which sent the case back for trial
The church’s attorney, Roman P. Storzer, said the decision enables Bethel to press ahead with its nine-year fight to build a facility that will accommodate its growing membership. “You can’t have worship at all unless you have a place of worship,” said Storzer, of Storzer & Greene PLLC in Washington.
S. Lash, "Appeals court revives megachurch's lawsuit against Montgomery County" (Jan. 31, 2013)
01/31/2013: Federal Court of Appeals rules in favor of Bethel World Outreach Ministries
In a published decision reversing the lower court's grant of summary judgment to Montgomery County, Maryland, the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that the church's claim that passage of a zoning ordinance prohibiting a place of worship on its property substantially burdens its religious exercise can go to trial. The court ruled:
Although the County suggests that Bethel’s burden is not substantial because the organization already owns one facility and rents another, Bethel has presented considerable evidence that its current facilities inadequately serve its needs. Specifically, insufficient space forces Bethel to hold four services every Sunday, and to shorten services, interfering with Communion and the church’s "Altar Call" practice. Bethel’s present facilities are overcrowded, requiring ushers to turn people away from services and limiting Bethel’s ability to offer various programs. Bethel’s pastor testified that the lack of adequate facilities creates a sense of disunity because the congregation is divided into so many separate services.
If Bethel’s proffered evidence is believed, a fact finder could certainly conclude that Bethel’s current facilities do not adequately serve its religious purposes, and that the planned 800-seat church would alleviate Bethel’s burden. . . . Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Bethel, we must conclude that the district court erred in holding as a matter of law that the County did not impose a substantial burden on Bethel’s religious exercise.
The church was supported by the United States Department of Justice and The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
Read the decision here.
01/01/2013: Latest U.S. Department of Justice Religious Freedom in Focus
Bethel World Outreach Ministries' appeal against Montgomery County, Maryland, and the UDV and Aurora Foundation's lawsuit against the Board of Commissioners of Sante Fe County:
On December 4, the United States argued before the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit that a federal trial court applied the wrong standard in ruling against a church's claim under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The United States had earlier filed a brief in the appeal, Bethel World Outreach v. Montgomery County Maryland, which involves a church's efforts to construct an 800-seat church in a rural/residential section of the county, arguing that the trial court should have applied a "totality of the circumstances" test to evaluate the RLUIPA claim.
The Fourth Circuit has since ruled in favor of Bethel World Outreach Ministries and remanded the case for further proceedings.
On November 27, 2012, the Board of County Commissioners of Santa Fe County voted to approve an application by O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal (UDV) to build a temple on a site where it had previously worshipped for 14 years. The County's approval of UDV's application resolves the New Mexico church's claims against the County under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which were included in the lawsuit UDV filed in the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico on February 2, 2012. . . . The Civil Rights Division filed an amicus brief in UDV's lawsuit on May 25, 2012, in opposition to the County's motion to dismiss UDV's complaint. The brief argued that the church had alleged sufficient facts to support a claim under RLUIPA, and that the church's RLUIPA claims should be permitted to move forward.
Religious Freedom in Focus Vol. 55 (Jan. 2013).
10/16/2012: Bethel World Outreach Ministries appeal to be heard on December 4, 2012
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals granted the United States' motion to participate in oral argument in Bethel World Outreach Ministries v. Montgomery County, Md., No. 11-2176. The Department of Justice previously filed a brief amicus curiae arguing that the lower court's decision was "flawed" for multiple reasons.
04/30/2012: Volume 51 of the Department of Justice's "Religious Freedom in Focus" highlights its appeal brief in Bethel World Outreach case
In a friend-of-the-court brief filed on April 12, the Civil Rights Division argued that a church in Montgomery County, Maryland, that had been prevented by the county from building an 800-seat church on a 119-acre site, had set forth facts that could show that the county imposed a "substantial burden" on the church's religious exercise in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The brief in the case, Bethel World Outreach Ministries v. Montgomery County, was filed with the U.S Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, and contends that a federal trial court in Maryland erred in granting summary judgment to the county.
Bethel World Outreach Ministries currently serves a congregation of 2,000 by holding multiple services at two locations in Montgomery County. In 2004, the church purchased a 119-acre parcel of land in the county in a zone that at the time permitted churches. The church began the process of planning construction of a large church. Subsequent zoning changes had the effect of blocking the development. . . .
The United States' brief observes that Bethel Outreach Ministries presented numerous facts to show that its religious exercise was substantially inhibited and limited. For example, it presented facts that its current services were so over-capacity that ushers had to physically bar congregants from entering, that religious elements of services including alter calls and communion had to be limited, that children were turned away from Sunday school, that various charitable programs of the church had to be eliminated because of inadequate space, and that the church would face considerable "delay, uncertainty, and expense" in seeking alternative properties. In light of these and other similar factors, the United States' brief argues, the church presented sufficient evidence of a substantial burden on it religious exercise to allow the case to go trial.
Religious Freedom in Focus United States Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division (Vol. 51, April 2012)
04/24/2012: The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed a brief amicus curiae in Bethel World Outreach Ministries v. Montgomery County
Montgomery County makes it exceedingly difficult to find land to build a church, and then uses its regulations and law-making authority in arbitrary ways against disfavored categories of churches. These actions violate RLUIPA Section 2(b)(2) by discriminating on the basis of religion.
Amicus Brief at 18. The Becket Fund is a non-profit, public-interest legal and educational institute dedicated to protecting the free expression of all faiths. Read their brief here.
04/12/2012: The United States Department of Justice filed a brief amicus curiae in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, supporting Storzer & Greene client Bethel World Outreach Ministries in its appeal against Montgomery County, Maryland
The appeal concerns Bethel's challenge to the enactment of a targeted ordinance (Zoning Text Amendment 07-07) prohibiting it from building a place of worship. The brief argues that "[t]he district court erred in concluding, as a matter of law, that ZTA 07-07 did not constitute a substantial burden on Bethel’s religious exercise." The Department of Justice wrote:
Bethel presented sufficient evidence to raise a triable issue of whether identifying a suitable, available piece of property for purchase and obtaining the necessary permits and approval to construct a church on a new site would result in considerable “delay, uncertainty, and expense,” despite the fact that the burden might not be “insuperable.” Saints Constantine & Helen Greek Orthodox Church, Inc. v. City of New Berlin, 396 F.3d 895, 901 (7th Cir. 2005). And Bethel certainly presented sufficient evidence to suggest that ZTA 07-07’s prohibition of PIFs on land similar to Bethel’s placed a “significantly great restriction or onus” on Bethel’s religious exercise. Guru Nanak Sikh Soc’y of Yuba City v. County of Sutter, 456 F.3d 978, 988 (9th Cir. 2006). Bethel presented evidence that its current facilities were insufficient for its religious needs, and that its lack of suitable facilities substantially inhibited its religious practices. For example, Bethel presented evidence that: some church members must be physically blocked from entering the church for worship services due to overcrowding; worshippers who used to be able to sit in the hallway to hear services are now precluded from doing so because of fire safety concerns; the church must hold multiple services, and therefore the entire congregation cannot meet as a single body; church members cannot receive communion during church services and instead must receive communion afterwards; the church cannot adequately engage in its “Altar Call” practice, which allows worshippers to dedicate or recommit their lives to Christ; children are turned away from the Children’s Ministry, which means that neither they, nor their parents, may attend services; there is no space for the church’s mission programs, counseling, health education, or services for single mothers and seniors; and the church has lost members because of the issues with its facilities.
Amicus Brief at 17-18 (footnote, citations omitted). The brief can be found here
05/14/2008: Bethel World Outreach Ministries challenges County actions against church development
This church had a very substantial need for a facility that can accommodate its various ministries, and it purchased property in a zoning district that allowed places of worship and has been prevented from building its church by various means ever since,” said Roman P. Storzer, the church’s attorney.
Brendan Kearney, The Daily Record (May 14, 2008).