ACLU of Maryland Champions Religious Liberty of Christian Ministry for the Homeless in Elkton

Affiliate: ACLU of Maryland
July 8, 2008 12:00 am

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BALTIMORE – Defending the fundamental right to religious liberty guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland has filed suit on behalf of the Meeting Ground, a church dedicated to serving the homeless, and its pastor, Reverend Carl Mazza, whose efforts to open a day center for homeless individuals as part of their religious mission has been wrongfully blocked by the Town of Elkton. The case, which was filed yesterday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, contends that the Town’s actions deprive the Meeting Ground and its members of their rights to freely exercise their religious faith under the U.S. Constitution and under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

“The constitutional promise of religious freedom is one of the most important principles in America,” said ACLU of Maryland Legal Director Deborah Jeon. “It is not the role of local governments to decide which churches and religious missions will be allowed to practice their faith. But that’s exactly what the Town of Elkton’s zoning board is doing in wrongfully denying the Meeting Ground and Rev. Mazza their rights to fulfill their religious mission of ministering to an underserved population of persons experiencing homelessness.”

The Meeting Ground is a religious corporation under Maryland law, and a mission cause of the New Castle Presbytery, devoted to work “with and among the poor, homeless, the sick, and any who are outcast, living on the margins of society, or those who seek a refuge or a home.” Rev. Mazza, an ordained Presbyterian minister for 30 years, has served six churches as pastor and was this year unanimously nominated by the New Castle Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church to stand for election as the Moderator of the General Assembly (the national church’s highest office). The Meeting Ground annually provides 30,000 bed-nights of emergency and transitional housing, as well as 45,000 meals, to the homeless of the Town of Elkton and Cecil County, and also organizes and hosts volunteer mission work for churches around the country to come to the Town and work on behalf of the homeless.

In addition to the four overnight shelters it already operates in Cecil County, the Meeting Ground seeks to establish the Mary Randall Empowerment Center, which would meet a wide range of religious and social needs of the homeless during the day, including Bible study, prayer and worship services, computer access, showers, food, and job training. The proposed site is 401 North Street in Elkton, which the Meeting Ground purchased for the purpose of opening the day center in 2007. Meeting Ground officials believe the central location and proximity to public services make the site ideal for the success of their ministry. The property is located in a “C-1” Zone, which permits churches, as well as all of the individual services to be provided by the Center, without any special exception or variance.

However, the Town of Elkton’s zoning board declined to recognize the religious nature of the center, and insisted that the Meeting Ground apply for a special exception under the “Social, fraternal clubs and lodges, union halls and similar uses” section of the zoning ordinance for “Philanthropic Institutions.” This special exception is for secular groups and brings unnecessary and undesirable limitations. Under the Town’s discriminatory application of the zoning law, a business charging money for its services would be allowable. Alternatively, if the Town considered Meeting Ground to be a “normal” church (in the words of one zoning board member) their activities would be allowable as religious “goodwill toward fellowman” rather than being limited as secular “philanthropic” work. But the Meeting Ground was forced to apply under the special exception and their application was denied.

“It is unfortunate that things have come to this,” said Rev. Carl Mazza. “We tried as hard as we could to do our ministry at 401 North Street, even offering to do only those things that were clearly work of the church, such as prayer meetings, Bible Study, and Worship services. But the town refused to consider even these activities, and left us with no possible way we could use the building for any purpose. What we are seeking to do is the true work of the Church of Jesus Christ, and we only ask the town to recognize this, and respect our zeal to share the Gospel. No one can be denied the right to witness to the living Jesus in word and deed, especially with and among persons who are poor, destitute, and homeless.”

Attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Richard Leveridge, Anthony Briggs, and Steven Wellner from the law firm Dickstein Shapiro, LLP, donating their time pro bono, and ACLU of Maryland Legal Director Deborah A. Jeon.

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