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Prince George’s County violated church’s religious rights, 4th Circuit says

Prince George’s County violated Victory Temple’s religious freedom when it denied the evangelical Christian church’s application to build a sanctuary in Bowie for its more than 2,000 congregants, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the denial violated Victory Temple’s rights under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The law prohibits land use decisions that substantially burden religious exercise in the absence of a compelling reason, the 4th Circuit said in its published 3-0 decision upholding a district court ruling that overturned the denial.

The county council’s asserted “compelling” justification for the denial – that the church would create severe traffic problems – was belied by the county’s failure to perform a traffic study or to consider road improvements or traffic signs to accommodate the church as well as motorists, the 4th Circuit said.

The court added that “the county wholly failed to link its compelling interest to the denial of Victory Temple’s application.”

“The absence of a traffic study – or any evidence showing that the county considered other ways of achieving its interest in traffic safety – underscores the county’s lack of consideration of alternatives,” Judge Robert B. King wrote for the court. “That fact undermines the county’s position that its denial of the application constituted the least restrictive means of furthering the county’s interests.”

The 4th Circuit was particularly unswayed by the county’s explanation that it declined to perform a traffic study because the results during the pandemic would have produced “inaccurate and irrelevant evidence regarding the actual traffic that this area faces under normal circumstances.”

The appellate court noted that the county council denied the temple’s application in May 2019, “long before the pandemic began.”

Meghan K. Casey, the temple’s attorney, hailed the 4th Circuit’s “strong affirmance” of her client’s rights.

“This (decision) just makes it abundantly clear that Victory Temple’s religious exercise has been preserved and they can move forward,” said Casey, of Gallagher Evelius & Jones LLP in Baltimore. “It’s just a great day for our client.”

Donald A. Rae, the county’s outside counsel, did not immediately return messages Thursday seeking comment on the decision and any plans to appeal. Rae is with Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP in Baltimore.

With its congregation having grown to more than 2,000 members, Victory Temple bought land in February 2018 near the intersection of Church and Mount Oak roads. The temple, an affiliate of the Nigerian-founded Redeemed Christian Church of God, completed the purchase knowing it would have to submit an application to the council to develop the property under the county’s Water and Sewer Plan, which included traffic considerations.

Though an engineering firm hired by the temple concluded traffic would not be significantly affected, the council’s transportation committee recommended denial of the application, which the council did.

The temple sued the county in November 2019 in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, alleging it had violated RLUIPA.

Adebayo Adeyokunno, the temple’s head pastor, testified at the pandemic-compelled remote trial in June 2020 that the church needed to build on its property to accommodate its growing congregation.

Three nearby residents testified for the county, saying traffic in the area was already a problem that had led to multiple crashes and would be exacerbated by the addition of a church.

Senior U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow ruled in favor of the church in September 2020 and ordered the county to “allow Victory Temple to proceed to the next stage of development” as that “would serve the public interest by vindicating Victory Temple’s religious exercise rights under RLUIPA.”

The county then sought review by the 4th Circuit.

Two religious organizations, the Sikh Coalition and the General Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists, submitted a joint brief to the appeals court in support of Victory Temple.

“Congress unanimously passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act based on voluminous evidence that disfavored religious communities, especially those of minority faiths, suffer from improper governmental burdens in the land use and institutionalized person contexts,” the groups wrote. “RLUIPA thus vindicates the promise of the First Amendment (right to free religious exercise) by providing a bulwark against arbitrary or prejudiced denials of basic religious rights in these areas.”

King was joined in the 4th Circuit opinion by Judges Stephanie D. Thacker and Julius N. Richardson.

The 4th Circuit rendered its decision in The Redeemed Christian Church of God (Victory Temple) v. Prince George’s County, Md., No. 20-2125.