Couple fighting fine for religious meetings

Owings Mills dispute involves parking, constitutional rights

August 04, 1999|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

An Owings Mills couple, fined $1,000 for holding prayer services in their home without a permit, is fighting back, saying Baltimore County is violating their constitutional rights.

County officials have cited Seth and Lisa Pachino for failing to obtain a "change of occupancy permit" to conduct minyans, or gatherings of at least 10 Jewish men, on Saturdays in the basement recreation room of their two-story brick home.

"The [Pachinos] have expanded the simple use of their home for personal religious reflection by opening it to the public, clearly an attempt to create a religious institution," Arnold Jablon, director of the county's Department of Permits and Development Management, said in a letter this year to the couple's attorney.

The law, county officials say, has frequently been applied when single-family homes are used for regular worship services.

But an attorney for the Orthodox couple says the county's permit requirement violates the Pachinos' right to practice their religion without government interference.

"If this was a social thing, a Saturday night party, they wouldn't need a permit. But because the gathering is religious in nature and not social, the county has this zoning requirement," said attorney Thomas J. Gisriel. "To me that's a direct regulation of religious activity in the home and it's not religiously neutral."

A decision on the Pachinos' appeal is expected this week.

Legal experts say that zoning disputes involving religious groups are fairly common as people move to suburban communities and face battles with homeowners groups when they try to build or expand houses of worship.

But the most visible battles -- such as the recent outcry over Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church's plans to build a megachurch in northwest Baltimore County -- involve construction or expansion of large, established churches.

County officials fined the Pachinos in April -- after warning them in a series of letters -- because of a complaint filed by Michael H. Kuntz, one of the Pachinos' neighbors.

The Pachinos declined to comment last week, and Kuntz did not return phone calls.

In letters to county officials, Kuntz said that he is concerned that the Pachinos might soon attract bigger crowds to the neighborhood of large single-family homes on Thoroughbred Lane.

"This is a single-family community. If a house of worship is there, they need to comply with the law," Kuntz's lawyer, Stanley S. Fine, said this week.

A county file on the case includes photographs showing numerous cars parked at the Pachino property and local news articles saying that Pachino hopes to form a "new orthodox synagogue" in Owings Mills.

"Mr. Pachino did not make any attempt to conceal his efforts at forming a new synagogue," Kuntz wrote the county.

Legal experts said a permit requirement for religious facilities to prevent traffic backups and environmental problems in residential areas would not be illegal.

"Regulating someone praying in their home would be wrong, there's no question," said Andrew King, who teaches property law and religion and the law at the University of Maryland Law School. But if the activity involves a large group and negatively affects the community, regulation might be needed, he said.

Such regulations pass Constitutional muster so long as religious facilities are not singled out, experts say.

"If a law singles out a religion or a religious activity, that's when a court will strike it down," said David Bogen, who teaches constitutional law at the University of Maryland Law School.

County officials insist that the occupancy permit law does not single out houses of worship because they're also required for schools, nursing homes and assisted-living facilities.

"The idea is to protect people who move into these residential areas," said James H. Thompson, a supervisor in the county Department of Permits and Development Management.

Ethel Barrish, president of the Worthington Park Homeowners Association, said Kuntz complained to the association about the services before filing his complaint with the county, but won no support from the group.

"The board believes that it is outrageous and ridiculous to try to tell someone that they can't have prayer meetings or any other kind of group meetings in their home," Barrish wrote in a letter to the county.

Barrish said that as far as she knew, the meetings were small -- with no more than 12 people attending -- and that they were held every other week and not during the summer.

The county's law requires anyone seeking a permit to submit a site plan and spell out details concerning handicapped accessibility, the amount of space used for the religious activity and the number of parking spaces available for each visitor.

Gisriel said parking is not a problem because the Pachinos are conducting Orthodox services and almost all of the participants are walking to the services. Orthodox worshipers interpret religious law as forbidding driving on the Sabbath.

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