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Pastor: P.G. County trying to limit church size

WASHINGTON — A pastor whose church won millions in a religious discrimination lawsuit against Prince George’s County says officials are trying to limit the size of the church’s new building, including a sanctuary with seating for 900.

Reaching Hearts International, a Seventh Day Adventist Church, has tried for the last decade to build a church in West Laurel, but the Prince George’s County Council has in the past blocked preliminary building steps. The county argued that extensive building could affect the capacity of a nearby reservoir and threaten water quality. In 2008, a jury awarded the church $3.7 million in a religious discrimination lawsuit and ordered the county to let building proceed.

On Tuesday the council made changes in response to the court decision, allowing the church to extend water and sewer lines and begin the building process on just under half of its 17-acre property. Councilwoman Mary Lehman, whose district includes the property, did not immediately return a request for comment.

The church’s pastor, Michael Oxentenko, said Wednesday that the council’s action limits the size of the church. Reaching Hearts needs permission to develop about 12 acres of land it purchased in 2001 to carry out its planned building, but the council’s action Tuesday makes only seven acres available for development, Oxentenko said. The pastor said the congregation has already scaled down its plans from the 1,500-seat sanctuary it sought in 2001.

“The decision they made was a deliberate attempt to define the size of this church on their own terms,” said Oxentenko, whose congregation of 300 adult members currently holds religious services at a conference center in Spencerville.

“This is not a megachurch. This is just a church,” he said of the space.

By comparison, Washington’s National Cathedral seats between 2,000 and 3,000.

In March, almost three years after winning the $3.7 million jury verdict, the federal judge who had presided over the trial awarded the church $872,122.17 in attorneys’ fees.

The church currently has a second religious discrimination lawsuit pending against the county; the county has asked that the lawsuit be dismissed.