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Church, county can develop housing

While Episcopalians squared off last week over whether judges can decide church property disputes, an Alexandria federal judge turned aside a First Amendment challenge to a government-backed project for affordable housing units that will share a 10-story building with a Baptist church.

U.S. District Judge Claude M. Hilton rejected the lawsuit by Arlington County resident Peter Glassman attacking the county’s $13.1-million loan for construction of a building with two floors of church facilities and eight floors of apartments. Glassman alleged the “affordable housing” label served to mask what was really a subsidy from Arlington to support the First Baptist Church of Clarenden.

Hilton, however, found insufficient support for Glassman’s claim of “excessive entanglement” between the county and the church in Glassman v. Arlington County, VLW 010-3-187.

The First Amendment suit was only the latest in a series of legal obstacles to the county project aimed at creating affordable housing in the congested Washington suburb. Neighbors first complained the county failed to follow the rules for rezoning the property. After the Supreme Court of Virginia agreed, the county redid the zoning. A second zoning suit to block the project again went to the Virginia Supreme Court, but that challenge failed.

With Glassman, the battle moved to federal court as the issue turned to separation of church and state. Glassman alleged that not only would some of the county loans be used to rebuild the church sanctuary, but apartment residents would have to pass through the church portion of the building to enter their homes.

Glassman also claimed that the board of the apartment project, called “The Views,” would be dominated by members of the church. He noted the president was a church trustee. In effect, Glassman argued, the controlling board was the alter ego of the church.

Hilton dismissed the alter ego contention. “The Views is a not-for-profit corporation that was established to develop, maintain, and manage the apartments planned on the Property, and there is no legal infirmity as to any of the County’s actions based on the composition of the membership of The Views’ Board,” he wrote. “One cannot impute to The Views the religious affiliations of its directors. Nor is it proper to infer that The Views represents the alter ego of FBCC.”

Hilton relied in part on an 1899 U.S. Supreme Court opinion rejecting an Establishment Clause challenge to government funding for a hospital founded by a Catholic monastery.

Arlington attorney Raighne C. Delaney, counsel for the property owner for the project, said Hilton found the government loan “well reasoned and beyond reproach.”

“Just because someone has some religious affiliation doesn’t mean they’re acting in a religious capacity,” he said.

The property owner, he said, is a secular non-profit developer, not a church. “It will not use one penny of the County’s money to erect any church.”

Delaney said the $46 million project is underway and continues on schedule.

Glassman’s attorney, Stephen G. Cochran of McLean promised an appeal. “We always knew that – win, lose or draw – this case was headed for the 4th Circuit because of the important constitutional issues involved,” he said.

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