BALTIMORE April 24, 2008 (Lawfuel)- In a verdict today, a federal jury found that Prince George’s County discriminated against Reaching Hearts International on the basis of religion and that the County had substantially burdened the religious exercise of Reaching Hearts International, a Seventh Day Adventist Church. After a seven day trial before U.S. District Judge Roger Titus, the jury also awarded damages to Reaching Hearts in the amount of $ 3.7 million dollars, in the event that Judge Titus determines that the County has not met its burden of proving that its actions were the least restrictive means of achieving a compelling governmental interest (known as the “strict scrutiny” test).
Reaching Hearts, a Seventh Day Adventist church, purchased 17 acres of land in West Laurel in 2001 where, according to Prince George’s County zoning laws a church is a permitted use as of right. Over the course of the following years, Reaching Hearts was frustrated by Prince George’s County in its numerous attempts to build a church on its property.
In the federal jury trial, Reaching Hearts was represented by lawyers from Gallagher Evelius & Jones: Ward B. Coe III, David W. Kinkopf, and Brian T. Tucker. The Church proved religious discrimination and a substantial burden on religious exercise by discussing its religious needs and motivation, and the decisions and comments made by members of Prince George’s County Council.
Now that the jury has found that the County discriminated against Reaching Hearts and substantially burdened Reaching Hearts’ religious exercise, Judge Titus will determine whether the County’s actions survive “strict scrutiny,” namely whether the County has met its burden of proving that the County’s actions were the least restrictive means of achieving a compelling governmental interest. Judge Titus will hold another hearing in this case in September.
“Today’s decision is a victory not only for Reaching Hearts,” said Ward Coe who served as lead attorney in the case, “but also for religious organizations throughout the country. The issues at stake are constitutional. Federal law recognizes the importance of religious exercise which is the first freedom guaranteed in our Bill of Rights.”
“This is a case that has been closely watched both by other jurisdictions and religious organizations,” said Dave Kinkopf who served on the trial team and has been involved in a number of successful religious land use cases. “Religious organizations have unique protections under the law. This case is another reminder that government cannot discriminate against religions nor substantially burden their ability to pursue their religious mission. We are proud to represent this congregation as it seeks to exercise its religious freedom by building its church.”
Founded in 1961, Gallagher Evelius & Jones is a Baltimore law firm focusing on real estate and business transactions, litigation, tax, health care, employment, education, affordable housing, and nonprofit matters. The firm has more than 45 attorneys serving institutional, corporate, and nonprofit organizations throughout Maryland.