A church is suing a Maryland city over a zoning regulation that bans them from holding worship services at a downtown coffee shop they own unless they apply for a special waiver the church believes is too expensive and uncertain.
Redemption Community Church, which oversees a non-profit coffee shop called Ragamuffins Coffee House, is suing the city of Laurel over a zoning law that requires it to undergo what it calls a "costly" and "uncertain" special exception, even while non-religious assemblies do not have to, according to the lawsuit.
The parameters of the exception include a nonrefundable $2,000 filing fee, the hiring of an engineer to draft an "Existing Conditions Site Plan" and a "Proposed Site Plan," and a detailed application that the City Board of Appeals can reject.
Known as Redemption Community Church v. City of Laurel, the lawsuit was filed last Friday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland.
Redemption Community is being represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative law firm that often handles religious liberty litigation.
ADF Legal Counsel Christiana Holcomb said in a statement released last Friday that the city of Laurel's zoning regulation was "discriminatory."
"The government can't discriminate against churches simply because they are religious," said Holcomb. "Despite making every effort to work with the city to comply with its burdensome zoning changes, Redemption Community Church is now being told to either stop holding worship services or pay severe fines."
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.
"Churches can be fortresses," explained the Reverend Jeremy Tuinstra, head of the church, in a 2017 interview with The Baltimore Sun. "I would stand up and preach about loving our neighbors and I didn't know mine."
In March 2015, Laurel's Planning Commission voted to grant Redemption Community a parking waiver to allow for its creation of a non-profit coffee shop and worship space.
The Ragamuffins Coffee House was located in the "Commercial Village Zone" of Laurel and needed a waiver in response to a code regulation on number of spaces.
Commissioner Mitzi Betman, chair of the Commission, explained at the April 2015 meeting that she was reconsidering the vote from the month before due to new details that emerged.
"When I voted for this in the affirmative, I believed that we were getting a coffee shop on Main Street that for two hours on Sunday was almost going to be a sublet in a sense for a church," explained Betman at the April 2015 meeting. "So there was a lot of additional information brought up."
This included the application not mentioning that the profits from the coffee house were going to charity and the Planning Commission not being aware of the city's new zoning regulation limited nonprofit access to the Commercial Village Zone.
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.
Last April, the coffee shop was officially opened, with the church holding worship on Sundays when the business was closed, according to the lawsuit.
Last August, the city sent the church a cease-and-desist letter compelling them to stop advertising their Sunday worship gatherings.
In January, the city sent a second cease-and-desist letter leading Redemption Fellowship to halt their worship services at their coffee house or face fines.
"Defendant, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause, has caused, and will continue to cause, the Church to suffer undue and actual hardship and irreparable injury," argued the suit.