ARIEL Russian Community Synagogue Files Federal Lawsuit Against Baltimore County and Board of Appeals

By Ariel Press Release
Posted on 04/14/17

Baltimore, MD - Apr. 14, 2017 - On April 4, 2017, the ARIEL Russian Community Synagogue filed suit against Baltimore County, Maryland and its Board of Appeals challenging the County’s zoning regulations and the Board’s denial of the Synagogue’s application to build a small place of worship on its Stevenson Road property.

The Complaint was filed in federal district court and alleges violations of the religious freedom and equal protection provisions of the United States and Maryland Constitutions, the Fair Housing Act, and the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”). The Complaint describes the importance of the synagogue project to the congregation. The three-acre site is less than a mile from another synagogue and the Baltimore Beltway, and is particularly well-suited for a place of worship.

The zoning of the property allows a house of worship as a permitted use by right. There is a single family home already located on the site, which ARIEL seeks to maintain as a home for its Rabbi.

The Complaint notes that the Board of Appeals rejected its use for the Rabbi, although it would otherwise permitted to be used as a home. The Complaint describes the size of the proposed synagogue, which would have the same square footage as the house next door. Nonetheless, the Board of Appeals found that the synagogue was somehow incompatible with the surrounding area.

The Complaint states that there was no reasonable justification for the Board’s denial, which was based on portions of the Baltimore County Zoning Ordinance that are so convoluted that a Board of Appeals member described them as “Byzantine” during public deliberations. The denial came after a year of hearings in front of the Board of Appeals, which followed lengthy proceedings before an administrative law judge. “Baltimore County’s system of zoning houses of worship is broken,” stated Roman P. Storzer, attorney for the congregation. “We’re dealing with constitutionally protected rights that should not depend on whether a use that’s permitted by right is opposed by hostile neighbors or the arbitrary and subjective whim of government officials.” Religious land uses are protected from undue burdens, discrimination and arbitrary treatment under RLUIPA, which was passed by Congress seventeen years ago to prevent such treatment against religious institutions in land use regulation.