A Kenyan church in Baltimore has filed a federal lawsuit against the Baltimore County and Board of Appeals of Baltimore County for discrimination and violation of civil rights.
In the lawsuit filed on October 13, 2017, Jesus Christ is the Answer Ministries and its pastor, Reverend Lucy Ware, accuses the County government and the County Appeals Board of acting in bad faith to prevent the church from operating from premises it purchased in 2012.
Reverend Ware, an ordained minster and native of Kenya, founded the nondenominational and multicultural church in 2002. Initially the church met at Rev Ware’s house but as the congregation grew they moved to different venues over the years and finally in 2012 raised funds to purchase a permanent place of worship.
Revered Lucy Ware tells Mwakilishi.com that the church congregation and its well-wishers held fundraising events and raised enough funds to purchase property located at 4512Old Court Rd, Pikesville, MD 21208 in cash in August, 2012. The property was previously a residential dwelling but the zoning classification of the property allows it to be used as a place of worship by right.
After purchasing the property, Rev. Ware says the church held two events in October 2012 at the property; a cookout and a party for the congregation. Rev. Ware says in the lawsuit that local residents complained about the gatherings, and in November 2012 the County informed the church that it could not use the property as a church.
In December 2012, the church applied an application with Baltimore County Department of Permits, Approvals and Inspection to change the use of the property from a residential dwelling to a place of worship. The County Director of the Department of Planning indicated that the County did not oppose the Petition “provided a landscape and signage plan is submitted to the department for review and approval.”
A hearing was then held on February 23rd, 2013 before the Administration Law Judge (ALW). Residents of the neighborhood also attended the hearing and raised objection to the property being converted to a church. Rev Ware says at the hearing, the residents made several comments she deemed to be discriminatory, such as one resident saying church members were “dancing and hollering like they back at their home back in Africa somewhere”, and another resident saying that church members “were out there dancing like from Africa. We don’t have that in our block.” The complaints were in reference to the two events the church held in October 2012.
In March 2013 the ALW wrote to the church informing them that the petition had been denied. An appeal to the Appeals Board was denied in October 2013, with the reason being that the property did not fully comply with all the zoning laws. A subsequent appeal in front of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals also failed.
The church then made changes to the site plan in accordance to the recommendation from previous hearings and filed a new petition, but that too was denied.
Rev Ware says local residents had an influence in the County and Appeals Board’s decisions to reject the petition. Rev Ware says the neighborhood residents have been very hostile to her and the church owing to their African heritage, with one such resident telling her “you monkeys need to go back to Africa and I will do whatever it takes to make sure you don’t stay here.” Another resident also allegedly told Rev Ware that “we can smell your stink from across the street.”
Rev Ware also says in addition to the verbal abuse from area residents directed at her and members of her congregation, the property has been vandalized at least three times. She also in one occasion found soiled adult diapers dumped on the driveway.
In the lawsuit, Rev Ware says the church’s operations have been severely hampered by their inability to move into the church they bought in cash. She also says the defendants have deprived the church of its right to freely exercise religion.
The plaintiffs, represented by attorneys Storzer & Associates, P.C., and Smith, Gildea & Schmidt, L.L.C. want the US District Court for the District of Maryland to:
- Make a declaration that the Board’s decision is void, invalid and unconstitutional on the ground that it violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, and the Maryland Constitution;
- Issue an order reversing the decision of the Baltimore County Board of Appeals and remanding the Plaintiffs’ application for consideration and a hearing before the Board;
- Issue an order directing the Baltimore County Board of Appeals to reverse its denial of the Plaintiffs’ application and to schedule a hearing on Plaintiffs’ application;
- Issue Preliminary and permanent orders enjoining the Defendants, their officers, employees, agents, successors and all others acting in concert with them from applying their laws in a manner that violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, and the Maryland Constitution or undertaking any and all action in furtherance of these acts;
- Grant an award of compensatory damages against Defendants in favor of the Plaintiffs as the Court deems just for the loss of its rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, and the Maryland Constitution incurred by the Plaintiffs and caused by the Defendants’ laws and actions;
- Grant an award to the Plaintiffs of full costs and attorneys’ fees arising out of Defendants’ actions and land use decisions and out of this litigation; and
- Grant such other and further relief as the Court may deem just and appropriate.
“It has been a hard road to travel but I believe God will see us through,” Rev Ware tells Mwakilishi.com.