Church now allowed to worship in coffee shop after Maryland city changes law

Ragamuffins Coffee House
Ragamuffins Coffee House, a nonprofit coffee shop owned by Redemption Community Church, located in Laurel, Maryland. |

A Maryland city has reversed a zoning law that prevented a church from holding worship in a coffee shop that it owned.

In February, Redemption Community Church, which oversees a non-profit coffee shop called Ragamuffins Coffee House, sued the city of Laurel over a zoning law mandating that it to undergo a "costly" and "uncertain" special exception that non-religious assemblies do not have to do.

The Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative law firm that was representing Redemption Community, announced Wednesday that Laurel reversed the zoning law and now allowed the church to hold worship at the shop.

Laurel city officials also changed other local commercial zones to eliminate any possible similar litigation, according to the ADF.

“The city told Redemption Community Church to either stop holding worship services or pay severe fines, but this lawsuit prompted officials to understand that both federal law and the First Amendment prohibit this sort of discrimination,” stated ADF Legal Counsel Christiana Holcomb.

“The church is now free to worship in and serve the community from its own building on the same terms as everyone else.”

Originally called Covenant Presbyterian Church, Redemption Community decided to move to the downtown Laurel area and set up a non-profit coffee shop to minister to the poor.

The Ragamuffins Coffee House was located in the "Commercial Village Zone" of Laurel and needed a waiver in response to a code regulation on the number of parking spaces.

In July 2015, the City granted the church a Use and Occupancy permit, which allowed them to operate the coffee shop provided that they did not hold any assemblies.

When the coffee shop officially opened in April 2017, the church held worship on Sundays when the business was closed.

In response, the city sent the church a cease-and-desist letter last year compelling them to stop advertising their Sunday worship gatherings and then in January sent a second cease-and-desist letter leading Redemption Fellowship to halt their worship services at their coffee house or face fines. 

In February, Redemption Community sued the city and in August, Judge Peter J. Messitte of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland issued a memorandum opinion against the city of Laurel's attempt to end a lawsuit.

Messitte said the church's argument was persuasive enough to reject the city's motion to dismiss for, among other things, the claims of religious discrimination being plausible.

For example, the opinion noted that the zoning regulations enacted by Laurel was "quite possibly related" to the religious nature of RCC's property.

"This suggestion is buttressed by the allegations regarding City Planner [Monta] Burrough's comments to church representatives, immediately after which the church received its first cease and desist letter demanding that it cease holding worship services," wrote Messitte.

"Such allegations, if proven, plausibly support the conclusion that the special exception process, as it applies to houses of worship, is 'unfair' and that the church need not go through it before the court can consider the as-applied claims."

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