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Pr. Geo.'s drops appeal of discrimination suit, owes church $3.7M

Prince George's County officials have decided not to seek further appeal in a court battle against a Laurel church that was awarded $3.7 million from a jury in 2008.

Reaching Hearts International, a Seventh-day Adventist church, claimed the county unfairly tried to thwart its plan to build a sanctuary on 17 acres in Laurel. Jurors for the U.S. District Court in Greenbelt found that the county's actions were motivated at least in part by discriminatory intent against a religious institution.

The case wended its way through the courts, and in March, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the ruling of the lower court. That meant the county's only option going forward was to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a letter dated April 19 obtained by the Washington Post (see below), County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) wrote to County Council Chairman Thomas E. Dernoga (D-Laurel) that he opposed seeking such an appeal. He said that "despite my personal opinion to the contrary," he supported past appeals in the case because he was following the advice of county attorneys.

But, Johnson wrote, "In view of the fact that the County has failed to prevail on every level of appeal...I believe this case should not be pursued any further. ...I cannot and will not continue to be a party to this action which has already caused this church so much injury."

The County Council had the option to appeal on its own, but in an e-mail Thursday, Dernoga said the body would not continue the fight. He said further comment was "forthcoming."

The decision not to appeal will not affect the county budget, said Johnson's spokesman, John Erzen. The damages awarded by the jury would come from the county's "risk management fund," a separate pot of money reserved for things like worker
compensation, liability insurance and law suits, Erzen said.

Erzen did not know how much was currently in that fund, but said the county usually sets aside $25 million to $35 million a year for the account.

"There's more than enough in there to cover this," Erzen said.

In 2002, the church bought the Laurel parcel with plans to build a sanctuary. Members of a Prince George's County Council committee cast votes to approve a change that would have allowed the church to connect to public water and sewer lines, but they later re-voted and rejected the change after receiving comments from Dernoga, who represents the area, according to the lawsuit.

Johnson Letter

By Jonathan Mummolo  |  May 14, 2010; 11:16 AM ET
Categories:  Jonathan Mummolo , Prince George's County  | Tags: Laurel, Prince George's County Maryland  
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Comments

"County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) wrote to County Council Chairman Thomas E. Dernoga (D-Laurel) that he opposed seeking such an appeal. He said that "despite my personal opinion to the contrary," he supported past appeals in the case because he was following the advice of county attorneys."

The County's attorneys work for him. They advise, he decides. He did it because he wanted to appease Dernoga. On top of the judgment plus interest to be paid, the County will be forking over money to pay outside counsel who handled the appeal. More money wasted.

Posted by: learnedhand1 | May 14, 2010 1:08 PM | Report abuse

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