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.
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Source: Baptist Press