The Redeemed Christian Church of God (Victory Temple) Bowie, Maryland v. Prince George's County, Maryland
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Deborah K. Chasanow on 9/9/2020. (sat, Chambers)
Case 8:19-cv-03367-DKC Document 58 Filed 09/09/20 Page 1 of 30
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF MARYLAND
THE REDEEMED CHRISTIAN CHURCH OF:
GOD (VICTORY TEMPLE) BOWIE,
Civil Action No. DKC 19-3367
PRINCE GEORGE’S COUNTY, MARYLAND
The Redeemed Christian Church of God (Victory Temple) Bowie,
Maryland (“Plaintiff” or “Victory Temple”) filed this lawsuit
against Prince George’s County, Maryland (“Defendant” or “the
County”) alleging that the County’s denial of Victory Temple’s
application for an amendment to the Prince George’s County Water
and Sewer Plan violated the substantial burden provision of the
Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000
(ECF No. 1).
Victory Temple sought a preliminary
injunction but, following a denial of the County’s motion to
dismiss (ECF No. 20), the parties agreed to expedited discovery
and a bench trial.
The County moved to amend its answer (ECF No.
34), and then filed a supplemental modifying the request (ECF No.
Victory Temple had consented to the motion as modified, and
it will be granted.
The parties submitted trial briefs (ECF Nos.
46; 47), and the three-day bench trial occurred over Zoomgov.com
Case 8:19-cv-03367-DKC Document 58 Filed 09/09/20 Page 2 of 30
from June 23 to June 25, 2020.
The court now issues findings of
fact and conclusions of law pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 52(a).
Victory Temple is a religious congregation of the Redeemed
Christian Church of God (“RCCG”).
The RCCG is an evangelical
church and was founded in Nigeria in 1952.
There are 40,000 RCCG
parishes globally, including 700 RCCG parishes within the United
The RCCG’s main goal is to win souls and it aims to
accomplish that goal by “plant[ing] churches within five minutes
walking distance in every city and town of developing countries
and within [ten] minutes driving distance in every city and town
of developed countries.”
Pl.’s Trial Ex. 1, at 2.
Pastor Adebayo Adeyokunnu (“Pastor Bayo”) is Victory Temple’s
Pastor Bayo founded Victory Temple in August 1996 in
In 2000, Victory Temple purchased property
located at 13701 Old Annapolis Road (the “Old Annapolis Road
property”) in Bowie, Maryland.
renovated and repurposed it.
The Old Annapolis Road property
In 2002, Victory Temple began using
the Old Annapolis Road property as a church.
Thus, as of 2002,
there were two Victory Temple parishes in Maryland: one in Laurel,
Maryland and one in Bowie, Maryland.
Since opening at the Old Annapolis Road property, Victory
Temple’s membership has grown from 500 members in 2002 to over
Case 8:19-cv-03367-DKC Document 58 Filed 09/09/20 Page 3 of 30
2,000 members currently.1
The Old Annapolis Road property has an
occupancy limit of 521 total seats.
Pl.’s Trial Ex. 51.
Victory Temple began leasing a neighboring property, 13633 Old
Annapolis Road in Bowie, Maryland.
Pl.’s Trial Ex. 5.
Temple uses the leased property as a place of worship for its
Additionally, Victory Temple occasionally rents
13711 Old Annapolis Road and uses it as an extension for additional
Pl.’s Trial Ex. 9.
Thus, in addition to the Old
Annapolis Road property, Victory Temple utilizes at least two
additional properties to accommodate its growing congregation.2
Victory Temple began searching for land to purchase for
building a new church approximately seven years ago.
contributing to it.
The space limitations of the Old Annapolis
Road property prompted the search.
Victory Temple’s services were
too crowded and the parking lot at the Old Annapolis Road property
Pastor Bayo testified that when the parking lot
is full, parishioners park on Old Annapolis Road and Victory Temple
employs off-duty police officers to help manage their cars.
In the trial brief and during trial, the County emphasized
that Victory Temple’s attendance records do not reflect 2,000
members “because the entire membership does not [attend] church
every Sunday.” (ECF No. 46, at 8).
Pastor Bayo also testified at trial that Victory Temple
occasionally rents Bowie High School for its annual “Power
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Old Annapolis Road property does not have a fellowship hall where
the Victory Temple congregation may gather as one community.
Pastor Bayo explained that parishioners currently meet in the lobby
and the parking lot after services.
Victory Temple created a building committee to search for new
land and employed a realtor.
The first property that Victory
Temple considered was Outlots A, B, and C in the Mount Oak Estates
Subdivision (the “Westbrook property”).
The Westbrook property is
in Bowie, a requirement for the property to be considered for
Victory Temple hired an engineering firm, Ben Dyer
Associates, Inc. (“BDA”), to analyze the Westbrook property.
February 2016, BDA prepared a feasibility study and presented its
findings to Victory Temple.3
Based on BDA’s feasibility study,
Victory Temple decided against purchasing the Westbrook property.
Victory Temple continued its search.
The next property
Victory Temple considered was 14403 Mount Oak Road (the “Mount Oak
The Mount Oak Road property is also in Bowie,
near the intersection of Church Road and Mount Oak Road.
2017, Victory Temple again engaged BDA to perform a feasibility
Pl.’s Trial Ex. 18.
Pastor Bayo understood that the
feasibility study would analyze Victory Temple’s ability to build
The parties contest the admissibility of BDA’s feasibility
study for the Westbrook Property. Consulting the study’s contents
is unnecessary and it will not be admitted.
Case 8:19-cv-03367-DKC Document 58 Filed 09/09/20 Page 5 of 30
a church on the property.
Pastor Bayo also understood that BDA
would analyze the property for water and sewer service.
On August 22, 2017, BDA presented its feasibility study for
the Mount Oak Road property to Victory Temple.
Pl.’s Trial Ex.
The feasibility study noted that the Mount Oak Road property
“is currently zoned R-E” and that “[a] church is a use by right
in this zone and development of this use is permitted pursuant to
the preparation of a Preliminary Plan of Subdivision and a Detailed
Id., at 1.
The feasibility study also explained that
the Mount Oak Road property “is in water and sewer category 5, an
area planned for a future community water and sewer system.”
BDA concluded that “the proposed church is feasible.”
Based on the feasibility study, Pastor Bayo testified he
was “fully convinced” building a church on the Mount Oak Road
property was possible.
Victory Temple purchased the Mount Oak
Road property in February 2018.
The crux of this action is the County’s denial of Victory
Temple’s application to amend its water and sewer category from
Category 5 – Future Community Service to Category 4 – Community
System Adequate for Development Planning.
Two plans are particularly relevant to this case: the Plan
Prince George’s County 2035 Approved General Plan (“Plan 2035”)
Case 8:19-cv-03367-DKC Document 58 Filed 09/09/20 Page 6 of 30
and the Prince George’s County Water and Sewer Plan (the “Water
and Sewer Plan”).
Plan 2035 is a 20-year general plan and “blueprint for longterm growth and development in Prince George’s County.”
4, at 5. Plan 2035 “take[s] a comprehensive view of [the County’s]
opportunities and challenges” and “uses that information to
Id. at 8.
“Plan 2035 does not take a
property-level view of the County or change land use designations
or zoning on individual properties.”
Two maps “establish the framework for achieving the Plan 2035
vision – the Growth Policy Map and the Strategic Investment Map.”
Stip. Ex. 4, at 14.
“The Growth Policy Map reflects the Plan 2035
vision and visually communicates where and how Prince George’s
County should grow over the next 20 years[.]”
Investment Map identifies where [Prince George’s County] should
invest the majority of county, state, and federal resources in the
near- and mid-term in order to create meaningful long-term change
and increase [its] commercial tax base.”
communities; (3) future water and sewer service areas; (4) local
Case 8:19-cv-03367-DKC Document 58 Filed 09/09/20 Page 7 of 30
Stip. Ex. 4, at 18.
It also demarcates “the
“The growth boundary is important because
it designates the areas that are eligible to receive public water
and [sewer] service and impacts where [Prince George’s County]
grow[s] and develop[s].”
The Mount Oak Road property is
within the growth boundary and classified as a future water and
sewer service area. Plan 2035 describes the future water and sewer
service area classification as follows:
Development is largely determined by the availability
and capacity of water and sewer service (see Growth
Boundary on Page 18). Controlling the expansion of water
and sewer service is the easiest and most effective way
a jurisdiction can manage and phase growth. Plan 2035
recommends placing properties that are located within
the Growth Boundary, but which have not been approved
for a water and sewer category change (which would allow
for denser development) in Future Water and Sewer
Service Areas. The Future Water and Sewer Service Areas
are holding zones in which near-term development is
deferred until additional residential capacity is
Id. at 20.
The Strategic Investment Map helps Prince George’s County
Program” and targets public sector funding and incentives to four
neighborhood revitalization; and (4) priority preservation areas.
Stip. Ex. 4, at 21; see also Stip. Ex. 5, at 2-22.
The Mount Oak
Property is not within an area identified for strategic investment
by the Strategic Investment Map.
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The Water and Sewer Plan
The Water and Sewer Plan implements Plan 2035.
Stip. Ex. 5,
The Water and Sewer Plan “implements the land use and
development policies set by the County” and “guides the County
planning and development processes by setting out the criteria
under which both public and private water and sewer services can
Chapter 2 of the Water and Sewer Plan “outlines the policies
and procedures for water and sewer planning, including the water
connection to the County’s development review process.”
5, at 1-1. The Water and Sewer Plan demarcates the Sewer Envelope.
Id., at 2-2.
The Sewer Envelope is “a boundary beyond which no
community water and sewer facilities will be approved” and it
“serves to encourage growth in communities where water and sewer
services are approved and are sufficient for handling this growth.”
The Mount Oak Road property is within the Sewer Envelope.
There are six state category designations for water and sewer
service areas; the County modified the state designations and uses
four categories. Id., at 2-4. This litigation involves Categories
5 and 4 (a property progresses from one category to the next in
The Water and Sewer Plan describes
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Future Community Service.
This category consists of
land inside the Sewer Envelope that should not be
developed until water and sewer lines are available to
serve the proposed development. Properties in Category
5 require a redesignation to Category 4 prior to the
development review process. . . . Redesignation from
Category 5 to Category 4 must proceed through a
legislative amendment to the Water and Sewer Plan[.]
Id., at 2-4, 2-5.
The Water and Sewer Plan describes Category 4:
Community System Adequate for Development Planning.
This category includes all properties inside the Sewer
Envelope for which the subdivision process is required.
Redesignation from Category 4 to Category 3 may be
requested through the Administrative Amendment process.
In addition to the preliminary subdivision requirements,
the redesignation will require that (1) the development
proposal is consistent with the County’s development
policies and criteria (Section 2.1.4) and the State
Growth Act; (2) adequate capacity exists; and (3) the
projects for necessary system improvements are included
in the approved WSSC Capital Improvement Program (CIP).
Any inconsistencies or inadequacies with the above
criteria must be eliminated prior to redesignation to
Id., at 2-5.
Chapter 6 of the Water and Sewer Plan details “[t]he
procedures and requirements to amend the Water and Sewer Plan and
Id., at 1-1. “Requests for changes to these categories, also known
as the Water and Sewer Plan Amendments, can be achieved through
two processes: [t]he [l]egislative [a]mendment process and the
legislative amendment process applies when, as here, “changes are
proposed from Category 6 or 5 to Category 4.”
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Enforcement (“DPIE” and formerly, the Department of Environmental
Capital Park and Planning Commission (“M-NCPPC”).
Stip. Ex. 5, at
Although each entity offers input, the authority to
amend the Water and Sewer Plan “resides with the County Council,
following recommendations by the County Executive.”
Id., at 6-1.
Section 6.3 of the Water and Sewer Plan outlines the legislative
The County Executive has delegated the management
of the Water and Sewer Plan, including the preparation
of Legislative Amendments, to [DPIE]. [DPIE] is at the
forefront in implementing the County’s goals, objectives
and legal requirements for providing water and sewer
service in Prince George’s County . . . through the
Department’s protection of the County’s natural and
manmade resources. In its management of the Water and
Sewer Plan and amendments, [DPIE] evaluates, prepares
and submits proposed Legislative Amendments for the
County Executive’s review and recommendation. These
recommendations are then sent with an accompanying
proposed Council Resolution for consideration by the
The County Council provides a notice of the pending
amendments to the public and County and State agencies
prior to a public hearing.
Anyone interested in an
amendment or an application in the proposed Water and
Sewer Plan amendment package may testify at the public
DPIE refers applications for amendments to various agencies
for review, incorporates comments received from the reviewing
agencies, and prepares a report evaluating the applications (the
“Staff Report”). Stip. Ex. 5, at 6-3.
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hearing. After the public hearing, a work session of
the appropriate County Council Committee is held. After
considering matters raised at the public hearing and
work session, the County Council acts on the proposed
The County Executive has ten
days following adoption of the resolution to comment on
the County Council’s action before the resolution is
Stip. Ex. 5, at 6-2, 6-3.
A separate process, the administrative
Category 4 to Category 3.”
Id., at 6-2.
There are three
legislative amendment cycles annually, except during election
Id., at 6-3.
This action involves the December 2018 cycle
Victory Temple’s Category Change Request
After purchasing the Mount Oak Road property in February 2018,
Victory Temple met with the M-NCPPC staff in May 2018 to discuss
the proposed development and to obtain early impressions and
Victory Temple presented BDA’s feasibility study and
the M-NCPPC staff provided comments for consideration, including:
(4) “[a] Water & Sewer category change will be required from S-5
The parties agree that, without amendment to S-4 and W-4,
Victory Temple could not move to the next phase of the process,
i.e., to submit a preliminary plan of subdivision. That phase is
subject to complex laws and regulations and involves multiple
parties, including the Planning Board, a subset of the M-NCPPC.
Decisions of the Planning Board are subject to judicial review.
See, e.g., Garner v. Archers Glen Partners, Inc., 405 Md. 43
(2008). The M-NCPPC website’s development review information page
provides a flowchart that illustrates some of the process,
available at: http://www.pgplanning.org/DocumentCenter/View/1326
Case 8:19-cv-03367-DKC Document 58 Filed 09/09/20 Page 12 of 30
& W-5 to S-3 & W-3 (the S-4 & W-4 is the intermediate step)” and
significant traffic concerns because the intersection was recently
improved i.e. review of other intersection in the surround[ing]
area will have to be checked however, to ensure this[.]”
Trial Ex. 39.
Victory Temple submitted its application for a water and sewer
amendment and the County received the application on November 27,
DPIE circulated the application for review and comment.
Initially, the City Manager for the City of Bowie, the County
Executive, DPIE, and the M-NCPPC determined that Victory Temple’s
application met the Water and Sewer Plan criteria and recommended
The City Manager for the City of Bowie, Alfred D. Lott, in a
memorandum dated January 31, 2019, concluded that the Mount Oak
Road property “meets the criteria for advancement to Category W4/S-4.
The abutting subdivision to the east (Woodmore Estates),
the subdivision and church across Mount Oak Road, as well as many
other parcels along the east side of Church Road, are already in
Pl.’s Trial Ex. 23.
Mr. Lott recommended
that Victory Temple’s application be approved.
The City of Bowie
City Council (the “City Council”) held two hearings.
occurred on February 4, 2019, but the City Council “tabled action”
“[t]o hear from the Homeowners Associations in the area[.]”
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At the second hearing, on February 19, 2019, “[s]ixteen
individuals addressed the . . . amendment request during the
Citizen Participation portion[.]”
Following the individuals’
On April 11, 2019, DPIE transmitted its staff report
to the County Council, including the recommendations of DPIE, the
County Executive, and the M-NCPPC that the Mount Oak Road property
“advance to Water and Sewer Category 4 – Community System Adequate
for Development Planning.”
Stip. Ex. 3.
On April 16, 2019, the
County Council held a public hearing regarding the December 2018
Twenty residents testified at the hearing
to oppose Victory Temple’s application, including trial witnesses
James Albert, Carrie Bridges, and Jnatel Sims.
The Mayor of the City of Bowie subsequently wrote a letter,
dated March 15, 2019, to the County Council confirming the City
Council’s newfound opposition and summarizing the reasons advanced
by the citizens as: “(1) the County’s planning policies are not
met; (2) it is not clear how the proposal protects environmental
quality and public infrastructure (including existing water and
sewer service and Church Road); and, (3) property values may
decline.” Stip. Ex. 3. The letter also explained that there is
a CIP project for Church Road, which runs adjacent to the Mount
Oak Road property, “but the project is not currently funded.” Id.
Case 8:19-cv-03367-DKC Document 58 Filed 09/09/20 Page 14 of 30
The TIEE Committee met on April 23, 2019 to discuss the
December 2018 cycle of amendments.
Ms. Shirley Anthony-Branch
explained DPIE’s recommended approval:
[W]hen Staff looks at applications, we look at them in
totality in regards to the entire County, not specific
to any district. When we reviewed the [RCCG], they met
all the criteria that is adopted in the Water and Sewer
Plan. And when they meet that criteria, unless there
are some extenuating circumstances, our recommendation
would always be to allow it to go to Category 4. And
Category 4 is when the planning agency would be able to
review this more succinctly, more in depth. And at that
time, I believe that the community also gets involved.
So, again, we saw no other extenuating circumstances
other than when we arrived at the public hearing to know
that there was some opposition by the homeowners in the
area. If you look at your Staff Report, at the time the
comments were requested from the City of Bowie, they
withheld them, and they indicated that they did not want
to make comment until after they held a public hearing.
And the letter that you all received was received after
the recommendation went forward to the County Executive.
And again, based on the information that DPIE reviewed,
our recommendation remains that the application met the
criteria of the Water and Sewer Plan, and that’s all we
That’s not our position to make any other
We go by the Plan, and we uphold the
Stip. Ex. 3.
Ms. Anthony-Branch also testified at trial, to the
Ms. Tiffany Williams-Jennings also spoke during the
April 23, 2019 TIEE Committee meeting and explained the M-NCPPC’s
The Planning Board, of course we met on April 11th, and
Staff comments do note that the subject property is
within the R-E Zone. A – the construction of a church
on 28 acres is permitted in the R-E Zone.
important to note that the subject property is adjacent
to the [Mulliken’s Delight] and cemetery, which is a
designated Historic Site, a designated Prince George’s
Case 8:19-cv-03367-DKC Document 58 Filed 09/09/20 Page 15 of 30
County Historic Site. So, at the time the church goes
through preliminary plan of subdivision, they will have
to submit a Phase I archaeology survey as well as be
reviewed by the Historic Preservation Commission. Also,
at the time of the preliminary plan of subdivision, they
will have to submit a Transportation Study to look at
the impact the church will have on transportation
Stip. Ex. 3.
Ms. Williams-Jennings did not testify at trial.
TIEE Committee then voted to deny Victory Temple’s application and
to retain the current water and sewer category for the Mount Oak
Road property “until more of the concerns are addressed.”
Council Chair Todd Turner summarized the TIEE Committee’s
There was substantial testimony [at the April 16,
2019 public hearing] that an application for a 60,000square-foot building with seating capacity for [1,200]
to 2,000 persons with an estimated 750 parking spaces,
particularly in an area where we have a history of
speeding and accidents along Mt. Oak and Church Roads,
and that is in the record, would also unduly burden the
community. In addition, [Victory Temple], in both its
application and testimony before the County Council has
not provided any evidence nor demonstrated hardship in
meeting these policies and criteria under the Water and
In addition, maintaining the current
category of the property would not create an undue burden
on or preclude the church in developing its property in
the future consistent with the community character.
Finally, obviously the City of Bowie, which borders
this property and owns a major community park just south
of this property and Church Road Park, conducted its own
review and public hearing on this application.
addition, the City Staff testified and provided written
correspondence requesting a denial of this category
change, which the [TIEE Committee] can take due notice
of obviously by reference. So, where does that leave
us? I believe there still needs to be work done amongst
all the stakeholders involved in this process, whether
Case 8:19-cv-03367-DKC Document 58 Filed 09/09/20 Page 16 of 30
it’s the church, the surrounding communities, the City
of Bowie and the County.
Stip. Ex. 3.
On May 7, 2019, the County Council received a new
draft of the resolution, substituted the second draft for the first
Stip. Ex. 2.
The substantial burden provision of RLUIPA states:
No government shall impose or implement a land use
regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden
on the religious exercise of a person, including a
religious assembly or institution, unless the government
demonstrates that imposition of the burden on that
person, assembly, or institution (A) is in furtherance
of a compelling governmental interest; and (B) is the
least restrictive means of furthering that compelling
42 U.S.C. § 2000cc(a)(1).
The above provision “applies in any
implementation of a land use regulation or system of land use
regulations, under which a government makes . . . individualized
assessments of the proposed uses for the property involved.”
If a plaintiff produces prima facie evidence to
support a RLUIPA violation, “the government shall bear the burden
plaintiff shall bear the burden of persuasion on whether the law
(including a regulation) or government practice that is challenged
by the claim substantially burdens the plaintiff’s exercise of
RLUIPA “shall be construed in favor of
Case 8:19-cv-03367-DKC Document 58 Filed 09/09/20 Page 17 of 30
a broad protection of religious exercise, to the maximum extent
permitted by [its terms] and the Constitution[.]” § 2000cc-3(g).
Land Use Regulation
“The term ‘land use regulation’ means a zoning or landmarking
law, or the application of such a law, that limits or restricts a
claimant’s use or development of land[.]” 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-5(5).
dismiss, concluded that “the County’s denial of the water and sewer
amendment constitutes a land use regulation under RLUIPA.”
No. 20, at 12).
The County, in its trial brief and during trial,
amendments to the Water and Sewer Plan do not constitute zoning
laws, and therefore cannot be land use regulations subject to
(ECF No. 46, at 28-30).
Alliance v. County Commissioners of Cecil County, 404 Md. 92
(2008), to argue “that a proposed amendment to a county’s water
and sewer plan is not a zoning action[.]”
(Id., at 28).
particularly because the County fails to engage with the earlier
(ECF No. 20, at 7-12).
The County also reasserts its
contention that state law, not federal law, controls the definition
Case 8:19-cv-03367-DKC Document 58 Filed 09/09/20 Page 18 of 30
of the term “zoning.”7
(ECF No. 46, at 29-30).
acknowledges “the general rule that terms in federal statutes are
defined with reference to federal law” but argues that the general
rule is inapplicable because “[z]oning equally is a quintessential
matter of local concern.” (Id., at 29). To support this argument,
the County cites two unpublished United States Court of Appeals
for the Fourth Circuit cases involving federal abstention.
at 29-30 (discussing I-77 Props., LLC v. Fairfield Cty., 288
F.App’x 108 (4th Cir. 2008) and Fourth Quarter Props. IV, Inc. v.
City of Concord, 127 F.App’x 648 (4th Cir. 2005))).
The County cites no case applying state law to
define “land use regulation,” “zoning law,” or any other RLUIPA
The County also characterizes the Water and Sewer Plan as “a
comprehensive planning document” and emphasizes the applicable
amendment process is legislative.
(ECF No. 46, at 21-28).
the Water and Sewer Plan may be a comprehensive planning document,
there is no question that water and sewer category change requests
occur parcel by parcel.
The Water and Sewer Plan, by outlining
the Sewer Envelope, defines the area “beyond which no community
water and sewer facilities will be approved” and “encourage[s]
The County focuses on defining the term “zoning law”
ignoring that “RLUIPA refers, first to ‘land use regulation’ and
then, as part of the definition, includes ‘a zoning law.’” (ECF
No. 20, at 7).
Case 8:19-cv-03367-DKC Document 58 Filed 09/09/20 Page 19 of 30
Stip Ex. 5, at 2-2.
Within the Sewer Envelope,
however, “[t]he process of changing [water and sewer] categories
allows public water and sewer service to be staged according to
development proposals, and assures high quality development by the
The Water and Sewer Plan therefore permits the
County to make “individualized assessments of the proposed uses
for the property involved.”
According to the Water and Sewer Plan, the administrative process
applies “when changes are proposed from Category 4 to Category
3” and the legislative process applies “when changes are proposed
from Category 6 or 5 to Category 4.” Stip. Ex. 5, at 6-2. Notably,
two other property owners, Cresthill Baptist Church and Trinity
Lutheran Church, applied for an amendment during the December 2018
cycle of amendments.
Stip. Ex. 3.
These two property owners each
requested (and received) a category change from Category 5 to
Stip. Ex. 2.
This reality suggests some fluidity
between the administrative and legislative amendment processes and
undercuts the County’s assertion that the administrative amendment
(ECF No. 46, at 27).
Case 8:19-cv-03367-DKC Document 58 Filed 09/09/20 Page 20 of 30
The Fourth Circuit recently outlined the substantial burden
RLUIPA prohibits land use regulations that impose
a “substantial burden” on religious practice, unless
they are the least restrictive means of furthering a
A substantial burden exists where a
regulation “puts substantial pressure on [the plaintiff]
to modify its behavior.”
Bethel World Outreach
Ministries v. Montgomery Cty. Council [(“Bethel II”)],
706 F.3d 548, 556 (4th Cir. 2013).
As relevant here, land use regulations can
substantially burden religious exercise where an
organization acquires property expecting to use it for
a religious purpose but is prevented from doing so by
the application of a zoning ordinance. In such a case,
two questions are usually relevant to determining
whether RLUIPA has been violated.
First, is the impediment to the organization’s
religious practice substantial? The answer will usually
be “yes” where use of the property would serve an unmet
religious need, the restriction on religious use is
absolute rather than conditional, and the organization
must acquire a different property as a result.
Bethel [II], 706 F.3d at 557-58.
Second, who is responsible for the impediment – the
government, or the religious organization? In answering
organization had a “reasonable expectation” of religious
land use, see Bethel [II], 706 F.3d at 558, and whether
the burden faced by the organization is “self-imposed,”
see Andon, LLC v. City of Newport News, 813 F.3d 510,
515 (4th Cir. 2016).
Jesus Christ is the Answer Ministries, Inc. v. Balt. Cty. (“JCAM”),
915 F.3d 256, 260-61 (4th Cir. 2019).
Case 8:19-cv-03367-DKC Document 58 Filed 09/09/20 Page 21 of 30
This is not a close call.
The County’s denial of Victory
Temple’s application for an amendment imposes a substantial burden
on Victory Temple’s religious practice.
Victory Temple acquired the Mount Oak Road property expecting
to build a church.
The County’s denial of Victory Temple’s
application for a water and sewer category change substantially
burdens Victory Temple because Victory Temple cannot proceed with
its development plans while the property remains in Category 5.
The two JCAM questions are thus relevant.
First, the denial of Victory Temple’s category change request
has prevented it entirely from developing its proposed church on
the Mount Oak Road property.
The Old Annapolis Road property is
George’s Cty., 584 F.Supp.2d 766 (D.Md. 2008), aff’d 368 F.App’x
370 (4th Cir. 2010), is useful for the first question of the JCAM
substantial burden analysis.
regularly exceeds the Old Annapolis Road property’s 521-person
Exceeding the capacity “has become a norm” and occurs
“almost every Sunday.”
Pastor Bayo testified that Victory Temple
church’s fundamental evangelical beliefs.
See Reaching Hearts
Int’l, 584 F.Supp.2d at 786-87 (“[The leased property] is not large
Case 8:19-cv-03367-DKC Document 58 Filed 09/09/20 Page 22 of 30
generally but especially on the first Sunday of each month when
The County argues that the monthly thanksgiving
service is not an edict or precept of the RCCG faith. This argument
is unpersuasive given RLUIPA’s explicit guidance that “religious
exercise” “includes any exercise of religion, whether or not
compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.”
property’s significant limitations.
religious land use.
The Mount Oak Road property is zoned R-E and
a church is a use by right.
The County’s reliance on Andon, LLC
v. City of Newport News, 813 F.3d 510 (4th Cir. 2016) and Friends
of Lubavitch v. Balt. Cty., 421 F.Supp.3d 146 (D.Md. 2019) is
inapt. (ECF No. 46, at 38-42).
Andon involved a variance request.
421 F.Supp.3d at 164-65.
Victory Temple also reasonably expected that its category
change request would be approved, although it is far from clear
that the “reasonable expectation” focuses on each step in the land
Case 8:19-cv-03367-DKC Document 58 Filed 09/09/20 Page 23 of 30
JCAM, 915 F.3d at 261-62.
to assist its property search.
Victory Temple hired BDA
Before purchasing the Mount Oak
Road property, Victory Temple rejected another property on BDA’s
BDA’s feasibility study concluded “the proposed
church is feasible.”
Pl.’s Trial Ex. 19, at 4.
testified that the BDA feasibility study “fully convinced” him
that building a church on the Mount Oak Road property was possible.
The County emphasizes, in its trial brief and on cross-examination,
the word “possible.”
(ECF No. 46, at 10 (“Plaintiff admits that
it understood that the change was only ‘possible.’”)).
places too much weight on Pastor Bayo’s diction.
being within the limits of ability,
capacity, or realization
// a possible but difficult task
being what may be conceived, be done, or
occur according to nature, custom, or
// the best possible care
// the worst possible circumstance
being something that may or may not occur
// a possible surprise visit
being something that may or may not be
true or actual
// possible explanation
Case 8:19-cv-03367-DKC Document 58 Filed 09/09/20 Page 24 of 30
having an indicated potential
// a possible housing site
Synonyms include “achievable, attainable, doable, feasible,
practicable, realizable, viable, [and] workable.”
“Although the ordinary meaning of a word normally aligns
with its dictionary definition, see Blakely v. Wards, 738 F.3d
607, 611 (4th Cir. 2013) (en banc), this general rule offers less
Navy Fed. Credit Union v. LTD Fin. Servs. LP, ---
F.3d ----, 2020 WL 5014866, at *6-7 (4th Cir. Aug. 20, 2020).
Supreme Court [of the United States] labels words of this nature
‘chameleons’ – that is, the color of their surroundings determines
their character.” Id. at *7 (collecting cases). Given the context
surrounding Victory Temple’s property search, the third definition
Moreover, as Victory Temple emphasized, there is
no evidence that the County has ever lawfully previously denied a
category change request, from Category 5 to Category 4, when the
requesting property owner generally fit the Water and Sewer Plan
criteria for an amendment.
Victory Temple had a reasonable
expectation that it could use the Mount Oak Road property to build
The County’s denial of Victory Temple’s category change
Searching Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Law yields the
same definitions and synonyms. Black’s Law Dictionary does not
Case 8:19-cv-03367-DKC Document 58 Filed 09/09/20 Page 25 of 30
request imposed a substantial burden on Victory Temple’s religious
substantial burden on religious exercise only if the regulation
fails to satisfy strict scrutiny.”
Bethel II, 706 F.3d at 558
(citing 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc(a)(1)).
The County must therefore
demonstrate that its denial of Victory Temple’s application for an
amendment to the Water and Sewer Plan “is the least restrictive
means of furthering [a] compelling governmental interest.”
U.S.C. § 2000cc(a)(1).
It fails to do so.
In its pretrial brief, the County set forth its understanding
of the law regarding compelling interests and least restrictive
Compelling interests are those that implicate “the
government’s paramount interest in protecting physical
or mental health, public safety, or public welfare.”
American Life League, Inc. v. Reno, 47 F.3d 642, 655
(4th Cir. 1995) (citing Sherbert v. Verner, 347 U.S.
398, 403 (1963) and Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205,
230 (1972)). “Traffic safety qualifies as a compelling
government interest.” Gbalazeh v. City of Dallas, Tx.,
2019 WL 1569345, *2 (N.D. Tx. 2019).
See also Roman
Catholic Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas v. City of
Mission Woods, 337 F.Supp.3d 1122, 1139 (D. Kan. 2018)
(citing Murphy v. Zoning Comm’n of Town of New Milford,
148 F.Supp.2d 173, 190 (D. Conn. 2001) (“There appears
to be no dispute that local governments have a compelling
interest in protecting the health and safety of their
communities through the enforcement of the local zoning
regulations.”) (citations omitted)). . . .
Case 8:19-cv-03367-DKC Document 58 Filed 09/09/20 Page 26 of 30
The government’s conduct must be narrowly tailored
to serve its compelling interest, which means that “no
Antietam Battlefield KOA v.
Hogan, 2020 WL 2556496, *12 (D. Md. 2020) (citation and
internal quotation marks omitted). To meet this burden,
the government does not need to refute all conceivable
alternatives, short of the decision it made. Hamilton
[v. Schriro, 74 F.3d 1545, 1556 (8th Cir. 1996)].
“Justice Blackmun recognized the dilemma in a least
unimaginative indeed if he [or she] could not come up
with something a little less “drastic” or a little less
“restrictive” in almost any situation, and thereby
enable himself [or herself] to vote to strike
legislation down.’” Id. (citation omitted).
Furthermore, the plaintiff also bears a burden in
this prong of the analysis. Hamilton, 74 F.3d at 1556.
The plaintiff “must demonstrate what, if any, less
restrictive means remain unexplored.” Id. (holding that
the plaintiff “failed to enlighten us as to any viable
less restrictive means that may remain viable to the
prison officials short of prohibiting the sweat lodge
If the plaintiff posits less
restrictive alternatives, the plaintiff must also show
“that the proposed less restrictive means would be
equally effective in serving [the] State’s compelling
interests.” Antietam Battlefield KOA, 2020 WL 2556496
at *13 (citations omitted) (concluding that the
plaintiff failed to show that allowing religious
services and gatherings to continue subject to social
distancing precautions would be equally as effective in
serving the government’s compelling interest in slowing
the spread of COVID-19).
(ECF No. 46, at 42-44).
The County identifies “traffic safety” as its compelling
Victory Temple argues that traffic safety
is a pretext and that the County Council acted in response to its
Case 8:19-cv-03367-DKC Document 58 Filed 09/09/20 Page 27 of 30
interest, and it likely does, the County wholly fails to link its
compelling interest to the denial of Victory Temple’s application
for an amendment.9
“A ‘compelling interest’ is not a general
interest but must be particular to a specific case; namely, the
interest requires the infringement of a particular right in this
case due to an interest of the highest order.”
Int’l, 584 F.Supp.2d at 788.
The area surrounding the Mount Oak Road property does have
Church Road and Mount Oak Road are adjacent to
the Mount Oak Road property.
There is a $9.5 million CIP for
Church Road, but the project is not currently funded.
project “has been in the program since 2006.”
Stip. Ex. 3.
Meinert, the City of Bowie Planning Director, when discussing the
CIP project at the April 16, 2019 public hearing testified that
“the sad part is that the funding has been placed in the beyond
six years category, which means there is no funding available for
The County has therefore been aware of
Victory Temple objected to the County’s introduction of
evidence that was not considered by the County Council. (ECF No.
47, at 31-34).
The County may admit any evidence that was
available to the County Council when it rendered its decision. To
the extent the County relies on evidence of traffic accidents postdating the County Council’s decision, the County undermines its
The ongoing traffic safety issues underscore first,
that Victory Temple did not cause the traffic issues on Church
Road and Mount Oak Road and second, that denying the category
change request has not ameliorated them.
Case 8:19-cv-03367-DKC Document 58 Filed 09/09/20 Page 28 of 30
necessary road improvements for ten years prior to Victory Temple’s
category change request.
Mr. Albert, Ms. Bridges, and Ms. Sims all testified at trial
and provided anecdotal evidence that similarly demonstrates the
need for improvements to Church Road and Mount Oak Road.
responders to numerous car crashes on Church Road that required
Ms. Bridges testified regarding the heavy
coordinate sports events for the Bowie Boys and Girls Club.
The County argues that approving Victory Temple’s category
change request will make the existing traffic issues even worse.
But Victory Temple did not cause the current traffic issues and
there is no reliable evidence that the activities of the church
would exacerbate those issues.
More importantly, the County’s
denial of Victory Temple’s application is not the least restrictive
compelling governmental interest to its action.
The County did
not provide any traffic studies to support its contention that
exacerbate the existing traffic issues (or that denying Victory
Case 8:19-cv-03367-DKC Document 58 Filed 09/09/20 Page 29 of 30
difficult for [the County] to argue that its actions were the least
restrictive means to achieve its compelling interests because [the
County] did not commission, examine, or adduce any evidence at
trial in the form of data, studies, or reports indicating what (if
any) [the church’s] water and sewer category change applications
undermines any assertion that it fully and adequately considered
any alternatives to its outright denials[.]”).
Turner’s statement that “there still needs to be work done amongst
all the stakeholders involved in this process” is telling.
The development review process contemplates the dialogue
Chair Turner suggests, but Victory Temple cannot participate in
the development review process until the County approves its
category change request and designates the Mount Oak Road property
The County’s suggestion in its trial brief (ECF No. 46, at
43) that the “County Council” would not be able to weigh in on the
traffic issues at the next stage of the process because it plays
no part in reviewing the Planning Board misses the obvious. The
defendant here is the County, not the Council. The Planning Board
consists of the members of the M-NCPPC from Prince George’s County.
See Cty. Council of Prince George’s Cty. v. Zimmer Dev. Co., 444
Md. 490, 522, 528 (2015); Md.Code Ann., Land Use § 15-102 (“Subject
to the approval of the County Executive, the County Council shall
appoint each commissioner from Prince George’s County.”); id. §
Case 8:19-cv-03367-DKC Document 58 Filed 09/09/20 Page 30 of 30
For the foregoing reasons, the court finds that the County
violated RLUIPA in denying Victory Temple’s application for a
category change from W5 and S5 to W4 and S4.
will be scheduled to discuss the proper relief.
A conference call
A separate order
DEBORAH K. CHASANOW
United States District Judge
20-201 (“The commissioners from each county are designated as the
Montgomery County Planning Board or the Prince George’s County
Planning Board, respectively”).
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