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City Under Investigation

Justice Department to determine whether City of Fairfax violated religious land-use act.

As far as Johnson Edosomwan is concerned, Dec. 13 was the end of the story. At a public hearing that day, after about a year's worth of conflict, the Fairfax City Council approved his request to build a worship space for the members of his church, One God Ministry. But a few months earlier, the United States Justice Department had begun an investigation to see whether the City of Fairfax violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) when they denied Edosomwan’s request the first time. According to Justice Department spokesperson Eric Holland, the investigation continues.

"The matter of concern is over," said Edosomwan. "The special-use permit has been completed to the satisfaction of One God Ministry, and we are very pleased."

The story began in September 2004, when Edosomwan proposed building a 11,000-square-foot church on a 1.17-acre site off Chain Bridge Road, near School Street, to be used by the congregants of One God Ministry. The council denied the request by a four to three vote, with Councilmembers Gail Lyon, Patrice Winter, Scott Silverthorne, and Mayor Rob Lederer opposing.

Edosomwan sued the City of Fairfax, saying they met illegally with residents of a nearby neighborhood, but dropped the lawsuit. He modified the original proposal for the church and resubmitted it in December 2004, and the council turned him down again. Edosomwan then filed two more lawsuits against the city for unfair denial of the application, and during that time, went to the Department of Justice with complaints against the city. The federal government followed up on the complaints and began the investigation in fall 2005.

Edosomwan came to the City Council and asked to talk about an out-of-court settlement, said Mayor Rob Lederer, and by December's meeting, the council and Edosomwan had reached an agreement. As part of the settlement, Edosomwan was allowed to file a new special-use permit application. Also, said city manager Bob Sisson, Edosomwan agreed to encourage the Department of Justice to drop the investigation, to pay any legal fees incurred in case the Department of Justice brings a lawsuit, and to limit development of his property along Chain Bridge Road and School Street.

"I contacted the Department of Justice and told them the matter is totally resolved to the satisfaction of the church," said Edosomwan. "There is no issue as far as we are concerned."

RLUIPA, signed into effect by President Bill Clinton in 2000, prohibits land-use legislation that discriminates against religious uses or limits religious exercise. The Department of Justice can investigate alleged violations of the act and, if it determines a violation, can bring a lawsuit to force a jurisdiction to comply.

The law came about in response to a trend that began in the mid-20th century, when jurisdictions began treating churches more like commercial uses, said George Mason University law professor Steven Eagle. When churches began expanding outreach and programs and gaining larger congregations, he said, they became regarded as community centers rather than regular sites of worship.

"RLUIPA attempts to … restore the preferred position of churches," said Eagle. "It is a significant weapon that some churches have used to get zoning in residential areas."

Now, the burden is on local governments to prove why a place of worship should not be there, said Eagle.

Lederer said that by approving the project in December, they were not trying to ward off the investigation.

"The Justice Department investigation has been around for a long, long time," he said. The denial and subsequent approval of the church is a land-use issue like the City Council sees all the time, he said.

Once an investigation is started, said Sisson, the Department of Justice has to follow through with it. Even though Edosomwan encouraged the government to drop the case, he said, a private citizen's request was not likely to make the investigation go away.

"We were surprised with the filing of [Edosomwan's request to the Department of Justice], and equally surprised the federal government followed it up," said Sisson.