With County’s Primary elections only two days away, the County’s State Attorney candidate Tom Dernoga came out in defense of his role in opposing a Laurel Church ‘discrimination’ case. In 2008, a federal judge slapped the county with a 3.7 million dollars lawsuit against the Church, called Reaching Hearts.

Mr. Dernoga was serving as a county council member (District 1) when the verdict was handed over.

The 2005-2008 legal battle has lately become an interesting campaign issue for both Mr. Dernoga and his then administrative aide Mary Lehman, who is currently running as a County Council District 1 primary candidate. Ms. Lehman also opposed the Church as a West Laurel community activist.

The county council district 1 candidate Ms. Crystal Thompson criticized the opposition to the Church as “wasting county’s money“. “Those funds ($3.7 million) could have been used to prevent employee furloughs or towards providing our students free breakfast, lunch, and access to filtered water” – she added.

In a recent College Park candidate forum, Angela Alsobrooks, who is running as a County’s state Attorney candidate, also charged Mr. Dernoga on this case.  “I think you should know [that] there was a case recently where the county was held liable for $3.7 M for religious discrimination and Mr. Dernoga was named in that case involving a church [in the county],” said Alsobrooks.

Mr. Dernoga said his opposition to the case was nothing to do with “discrimination” in nature, and said it’s all about protecting citizens’ rights. “I do not regret voting to protect the drinking water source of our citizens.”– wrote Dernoga in an email to me. ” The only issue was the potential impact of the project – which did not meet zoning requirements, but which they were trying to circumvent – on the drinking water for 820,000 people. We did not say “no” to them, we said “not here”. Because of the limited development normally allowed around the Reservoir, the price of land is low. They grabbed the cheap land and then proposed a mammoth facility. Just because one says “no” does not mean one is discriminating. The merits of a proposal have to be evaluated.” –Dernoga added.

Earlier, County Council District 1 candidate Mr. Smalls rejected the argument that the issues were environmental in nature. “First, if there were environmental concerns, those issues were addressed at the time of subdivision.  The church’s application was for a water/sewer category change and all of the requirements to attach to public water and sewer were met and there was no reason to deny the application.  It should be noted that the County Executive and the county’s Department of Environmental Resources recommended that the sewer service category for the property be changed so the proposed church could connect to existing public water and sewer lines. The County Council voted to approve the change, but later reconsidered the request and rejected it after receiving comments from councilman Dernoga.” – charged Mr. Smalls.

Mr. Dernoga also argued that the Church was not an African American one. “It had African American members, but it was mixed  – like most of our churches. The Pastor, his wife and most of the Board of Trustees were white. At the time of the original vote on a Water & Sewer application, the only representatives that I had seen were white.”– said Dernoga defending his arguments.

According to the Washington Post article, the lawsuit alleges Dernoga acted because of pressure from constituents who “wanted to keep the perceived majority-African-American congregation” out of West Laurel. “In a 50-page decision, U.S. District Judge Roger W. Titus affirmed the jury’s April verdict, which found that county officials used zoning regulations “to keep African American churches out of the county” and to keep such churches from expanding, an allegation the county denied in court.”– said the Post article.

The suit claimed that the West Laurel Civic Association ‘‘lobbied against the church because it is a multi-ethnic congregation from an African-American conference.” Ms. Mary Lehman served as the President of the West Laurel civic association during the course of the legal battle.

Mr. Dernoga rejected that the case is in any way “racial discrimination” in nature. “the suggestions that the decision was based on racial discrimination is false. After losing every State court case and appeal that they church filed, they went to  Federal Court and alleged racial and religious discrimination. Their racial discrimination count was based on the unproven allegation of the pastor’s wife that an unknown resident told her that the community did not want a black church moving in. there was no evidence to support this and ultimately the Count was not pursued. Contrary to what is written above, there were no statements in public hearings that community groups opposed a black church. That statement is inaccurate.”-Mr. Dernoga argued.

Mr. Dernoga also complained that the jury was not allowed to hear the mediation arguments in the case. “We offered to move them (the Church members) to any of about 20 alternative sites. They found something wrong with every site offered to them. All sites were in the same general area of the north County. There never has been an intent to ‘keep them out’. I have strong relations with many church leaders in District 1, including African American, Hindu, Seventh Day Adventist and Muslim.”  – commented Mr. Dernoga.

The lawsuit claimed the County Council and Mr. Dernoga had ‘‘a history of prejudice against churches and of using zoning ordinances to obstruct the development and limit the growth of churches in the county.”

Though he accepted the ultimate ruling as a “religious discrimination” in nature, he said the Washington Post mistakenly reported the case as a “racial discrimination”, a term he claimed the Post stopped using in latter reports. “The ultimate ruling was a finding of religious discrimination, but the Washington Post, in a hurry to get to print at the end of the day when the ruling issued, mistakenly wrote that it was based on racial discrimination – and repeated this in a story on the appeal. The Post has since stopped writing that the decision is based on racial discrimination.”

Mr. Dernoga congratulated  the church’s lawyers for convincing a jury, but he characterized the loss in this legal battle as a “bizarre example of American Jurisprudence.” Earlier, Ms. Lehman attributed the loss in this case to the work of an expert legal team from the Church. “Reaching Hearts simply hired a clever attorney who sued based on a federal law that makes it harder for the government to deny any religious institution the ability to build wherever it wants.” – she said in an interview to me.

The county primary elections will be held on September 14. Four other candidates – Angela Alsobrooks, Mark Spencer, Peggy Magee and Joseph Wright are running against Mr. Dernoga in County’s State Attorney primary position.