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City Stops Church from Holding Worship Services in Its Own Coffee House

06-12-2018
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A church in Laurel, Maryland opened a coffee shop and planned to serve coffee six days a week, and hold worship services at the shop on Sundays.

But soon after Ragamuffins Coffee House opened its doors, city officials told them to stop using the space for worship services or face steep weekly fines.

The church filed a discrimination case against the city in February after relocating its church there with the hopes of reaching the underprivileged and homeless seven days a week. 

The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) recently presented oral arguments before the Federal District Court of Maryland on behalf of Redemption Community Church.

"We're trying to represent the tremendous love of God," Rev. Jeremy Tuinstra told the Baltimore Sun about the church.

"Community is our first product; after that, we bring (handcrafted) coffee," Tuinstra said.

"The church bought the property with the expectation and hope of using it for a house of worship and then also using it for a coffee shop during the week as part of the church ministry," ADF Legal Counsel Christiana Holcomb told CBN News.

However, the church faced several obstacles from the city. 

"Three days after they first looked through the property and walked through it with a city official, the city started to change its laws," Holcomb explained. "First it banned non-profit organizations and then secondly it changed the law to make houses of worship restricted to...second-class or second tier in their zoning."

According to the Alliance Defending Freedom, the new set of laws would require churches on less than one-acre lots to apply for a "special exception," which is costly.

City staff originally worked with church members to ensure compliance with the new regulations while preserving the ministry's vision and goals, the Baltimore Sun reported. 

However, after moving forward with their new plans for the coffee shop, the city sent the church a letter telling them to stop holding worship services in their building. If it didn't comply, the church would be subject to a weekly fine of $250.

"The church, obviously, a tiny congregation of 15-20 members could not afford to accrue fines like that," Holcomb said. "So they have been forced to stop meeting for worship in their own building."

Holcomb said numerous secular groups in the area are allowed to meet in that zone and they do not have to undergo the special exception process. 

"That violates federal law," she added. "Federal law makes it very clear that cities cannot discriminate against religious uses and allow secular uses." 

"The government is constitutionally required to treat religious organizations equally," said ADF Senior Counsel Erik Stanley, director of the ADF Center for Christian Ministries. 

"Laurel officials allow secular groups such as cinemas, theatres, comedy clubs, schools, and health clubs to locate downtown, but not this small church that wants to serve its community. That's not legal or constitutional."

The ADF is hopeful that the church will soon be able to open its doors. 

"No final decision yet, but we are optimistic that the court recognized the blatant discrimination that the city had expressed toward the church," Holcomb said. "And we are optimistic that the case will move forward."

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