Appeals court rules against church highway sign

December 25, 2008|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,

A church's six-year effort to place a huge electronic sign overlooking the Baltimore Beltway was dealt a perhaps fatal blow yesterday.

The Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that Baltimore County officials had not violated the Trinity Assembly of God's right to freedom of religious expression by denying its request to erect the sign.

The court said the church, based in Lutherville, could reasonably "identify itself and conduct outreach without a 250 square-foot sign" - four times higher and 10 times bigger than zoning regulations allow. The church had proposed the sign in 2002 near the spot where Interstate 83 meets Interstate 695.

County officials denied the requested variance, saying they feared such a sign, with changeable messages, would lead to visual clutter and cause accidents among distracted motorists.

The Baltimore County Circuit Court twice upheld zoning officials' denials of the variance, and the church then sought relief from the state Court of Special Appeals. In February, that court upheld the county's actions.

Church officials, who could not be reached yesterday for comment, had contended that denial of the variance violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal statute that forbids a zoning authority from imposing "a substantial burden on an institution's religious exercise." In yesterday's decision, the appeals court ruled that the county's denial of the variance had done no such thing.

Trinity has more than 1,700 congregants, some of whom attend services there from as far as southern Pennsylvania, the decision said. The church's 15-acre property on West Joppa Road abuts the Beltway's eastbound lanes.

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