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Jesus Christ Is The Answer Ministries, Inc. v. Baltimore County Maryland

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

February 7, 2019

JESUS CHRIST IS THE ANSWER MINISTRIES, INC.; REV. LUCY WARE, Plaintiffs-Appellants,
v.
BALTIMORE COUNTY, MARYLAND; BOARD OF APPEALS OF BALTIMORE COUNTY, MARYLAND, Defendants-Appellees. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Amicus Supporting Appellants.

          Argued: October 31, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, at Baltimore. Richard D. Bennett, District Judge. (1:17-cv-03010-RDB)

         ARGUED:

          Roman P. Storzer, STORZER & ASSOCIATES, P.C., Washington, D.C., for Appellants.

          James Joseph Nolan, Jr., Paul M. Mayhew, BALTIMORE COUNTY OFFICE OF LAW, Towson, Maryland, for Appellees.

          John Matthew Gore, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Washington, D.C., for Amicus United States of America.

         ON BRIEF:

          Sieglinde K. Rath, STORZER & ASSOCIATES, P.C., Washington, D.C.; Lawrence E. Schmidt, SMITH GILDEA & SCHMIDT LLC, Towson, Maryland, for Appellants.

          Michael E. Field, County Attorney, R. Brady Locher, Assistant County Attorney, BALTIMORE COUNTY OFFICE OF LAW, Towson, Maryland, for Appellees.

          Tovah R. Calderon, Katherine E. Lamm, Appellate Section, Civil Rights Division, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Washington, D.C., for Amicus United States of America.

          Before NIEMEYER, AGEE, and DIAZ, Circuit Judges.

          DIAZ, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         Jesus Christ Is the Answer Ministries, Inc. (the "Church") and Reverend Lucy Ware appeal the dismissal of their claims against Baltimore County and the Board of Appeals of Baltimore County. The district court dismissed Plaintiffs' suit for failure to state a claim under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ("RLUIPA"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc et seq., the Free Exercise Clause, the Equal Protection Clause, and Article 36 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights. For the reasons that follow, we vacate and remand for further proceedings.

         I.

         A.

         Jesus Christ is the Answer Ministries, Inc. is a nondenominational Christian church founded in Baltimore in 1997 by Reverend Lucy Ware.[1] The Church describes itself as evangelical and multicultural. It has associated churches in Kenya and the Seychelles, and many of the Church's congregants were born in Africa. Reverend Ware was born in Kenya, where she was active in her family church until moving to the United States.

         The Church has struggled to secure an adequate house of worship, and this has impeded its religious mission. This lawsuit arises from Ware's unsuccessful efforts to obtain County approval to operate a church on property that she purchased for that purpose in 2012 (the "Property").

         The Property consists of 1.2 acres of land with a building previously used as a dwelling. It is zoned under the Baltimore County Zoning Regulations ("BCZR") as "Density Residential 3.5."

         In this zone, churches are permitted as of right subject to certain conditions, including that parking lots and structures are (1) set back 75 feet from tract boundaries, and (2) separated from adjacent lots by a 50-foot landscaped buffer. BCZR §§ 1B01.1.A.3, 1B01.1.B.1.e. These conditions, however, don't apply to new churches whose site plans have been approved after a public hearing finding that compliance with the conditions will be maintained "to the extent possible," and that the plan "can otherwise be expected to be compatible with the character and general welfare of the surrounding residential premises." Id. § 1B01.1.B.1.g. (6).

         Before Ware purchased the Property, her realtor advised her that a church was a permitted use on the Property.

         After buying the Property, Ware made improvements to the building and parking lot and held a church service and cookout. Neighbors complained to the County, and a County inspector notified Ware that she couldn't use the Property as a church unless she complied with applicable zoning requirements.

         Ware filed a petition with the County to approve use of the Property as a church. The petition proposed a buffer and setback of zero feet, seeking complete relief from the zoning requirements. It also sought variances from parking requirements. The County

         Director of the Department of Planning did not oppose the petition, "provided a landscape and signage plan is submitted to the department for review and approval." J.A. 19 ¶ 105. A hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). ...


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