Apr 2, 2016

Church of Scientology claims religious discrimination in Trout Run case

Patti Borda Mullins
The Frederick News-Post
April 1, 2016

The main entrance to Trout Run on Catoctin Hollow Road near Thurmont is shown last April.

The Church of Scientology’s real estate arm is continuing to lay the groundwork to sue Frederick County for religious discrimination if the Narconon drug treatment program is not able to operate at the former Trout Run camp site.

Social Betterment Properties International filed complaints in March with Frederick County Circuit Court to get all of the records mentioning Trout Run in the period of time last year when the county was deciding whether the property should be designated a historic site.

Social Betterment bought the 40-acre camp south of Thurmont in September 2013 to open a group home for drug and alcohol abuse treatment operated by Narconon. The Narconon program is based on the writings and techniques of L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology’s founder.

The Trout Run property is zoned for resource conservation, and a group home would not be allowed. Properties with historic designation may apply to the Board of Zoning Appeals for special-exception uses, and a group home has been among those allowed uses.

Social Betterment has alleged that the decision not to designate the site as historic was not based on its history, zoning and legal grounds. The council made its decision after receiving oral and written comments against the Church of Scientology, and Social Betterment alleges that the decision was influenced by religious discrimination.

“The county should reasonably anticipate that Social Betterment may file a lawsuit ... because of the county’s improper, illegal and discriminatory treatment of Social Betterment,” the document filed March 22 with the court stated. Jennifer Kneeland, Social Betterment’s attorney, responded in an email Friday that “Social Betterment does not wish to comment at this time.”

The county’s attorneys said the council acted within its legal rights to decide against the historic designation.

“Certainly there’s been a lot of public commentary,” County Attorney John Mathias said in a telephone interview. “I think the County Council went out of their way to make sure they base all of their decisions on county law.”

Social Betterment filed a public information request for all of the communications that the council sent and received to see what went into their deliberations. Social Betterment received dozens of pages, but not everything. Mathias said that what was withheld could be kept confidential based on one of three legal reasons: executive privilege, the deliberative process privilege, or the inter-agency or intra-agency record exception.

“It’s designed to protect the deliberations of ... the executive staff and the legislature in the formative stages,” Mathias said, explaining the amount of information the county shared with Social Betterment. “We think we fully complied.”

Social Betterment’s March court filings request an immediate court order to get all of the withheld documents, emails and attachments.

Since January, the county has also been considering a council bill to remove group homes from the list of allowed uses on historic property. Social Betterment states in the filings that the council’s bill discriminates against Social Betterment.

“The bill is targeted at a single entity, Social Betterment, and a single proposed use, group homes, because of improper and illegal bias against Social Betterment and the Narconon drug treatment program based on their affiliation with the Church of Scientology,” the filing states.

The bill was recommended for approval by the Frederick County Planning Commission, and the council is scheduled to make a decision about it April 5.

Social Betterment is also waiting for the county to respond to Circuit Judge William R. Nicklas Jr.’s request for the council’s legal justification to deny historic status to Trout Run. Social Betterment said after the vote, and Nicklas agreed, that the council was acting in a quasi-judicial capacity when it voted and so was required to issue a final decision including findings of fact and conclusions of law.

Because no final decision was issued in that form, Nicklas said, the court could not properly perform its function of reviewing the council’s denial. Nicklas said he also could not evaluate the claims of religious discrimination without specific factual findings of the council.

Attorneys for Frederick County argued that the decision was a legislative action, which does not require written or spoken findings of fact before a vote.

Nicklas ordered that the case be returned to the council, which will have to issue those findings of fact.


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