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11th Circuit considers religious freedom of Buddhist meditation center

The Thai Meditation Center of Alabama contends its constitutional right to free exercise of religion was violated by a local zoning decision.

(CN) — What they wanted was a quiet waterfront retreat where they could practice meditation and other tenets of Buddhism. Since 2010, the Nimityongskul family has operated the Thai Meditation Center of Alabama out of a small commercial space in a Mobile strip mall along one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares. 

There, weekly meditation classes and other events are frequently interrupted by traffic noises and other distractions, while the location isn’t ideal for hosting visiting monks, artists and other instructors. In 2015, the center found what it was looking for and purchased a tranquil 7-acre residential property on Dog River featuring a 4,800 square-foot home and 900 square-foot guest cottage. A heavily landscaped lot with roughly 700 feet of shoreline, it is one of the largest privately owned single-family waterfront lots in coastal Alabama.  

Then came what they thought was a routine planning commission application. On the property, the center also wanted to construct a parking lot, a 2,400-square-foot meditation center, a 2,000- square-foot cottage for visiting monks, and a 600-square-foot restroom facility. After a pair of public hearings in which neighbors expressed their own concerns about traffic and noise, the center’s application was denied. Appealing the decision, Nimityongskul’s attorneys alleged the city was engaged in religious discrimination. 

Thus began a six year legal battle that made its way to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the second time on May 4. Previously, the appeals court agreed the district court erred in its interpretation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which prevents governments from implementing land use regulations that may impose a “substantial burden” on the religious exercise of a group or individual. More broadly, it exempts churches and religious organizations from certain zoning restrictions.

In the first appeal, the 11th Circuit determined the Buddhist meditation center does in fact engage in religious exercise and the city’s restrictions may indeed pose a “substantial burden” on the practice. The case was remanded but again, the district court ruled in favor of the city

On Thursday, attorneys in the case once again met in Montgomery to further argue the “substantial burden” clause, as well the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. 

On behalf of the meditation center, attorney Blair Storzer told the panel the district court erred in three ways. First, the elements established by the first appeal were interpreted as “factors” the plaintiff “must” demonstrate in order to show a substantial burden. Second, the court wrongfully applied a “rational basis” review to the plaintiff’s free exercise claim and third, determined the city met its burden in applying a “strict scrutiny” review of the plaintiff’s rights under the Alabama Religious Freedom Amendment. 

“Here, the plaintiffs completely complied with the process and were justified in believing that they could meet a series of conditions in a zoning district that not only allowed but encouraged church use,” Storzer said, noting at least two Christian churches in the same neighborhood had received the planning commission’s approval. “The plaintiffs were justified in their reasonable expectation [of approval].”

The panel included appellate Judges Charles R. Wilson and Jill A. Pryor, who were joined by U.S. District Judge Anne C. Conway of the Middle District of Florida. 

Storzer said the center has not considered building the facility elsewhere or modifying its permit to meet the city’s conditions for the Dog River property. 

“The standard is whether there are readily available alternatives to the plaintiff and any other property would involve delays and expenses,” she said, adding the center adheres to the Pāli Canon of Buddhism, which recommends practices that cannot be met at the center’s current commercial space.

Under the free exercise claim, Storzer argued the city’s discretionary denial of zoning is not a law of general applicability and therefore, the district court’s rational basis review was inappropriate. Storzer encouraged the panel to rule on the case without remanding it back to district court, as there are no longer findings of fact to be considered.  

On behalf of the city, attorney Taylor Johnson called the center’s application “very unique,” and suggested the plaintiff’s religious argument was “self-imposed” after initial marketing materials indicated the center was “nonreligious.” 

“It is a very unusual request in the planning process to convert a single family home where there's not been any prior religion for church use or even commercial use,” Johnson said. “The planning approval criteria is always site plan specific. And there will be some areas where a church may work and there may be other areas where the issues of compatibility, traffic and access don't work.”

Johnson said the district court’s decision was made after a site visit and with the testimony of neighbors and planning commission members. 

“Proportionally speaking, it is a large impact,” she said.

Johnson confirmed the plaintiffs have not considered other sites or submitted a modified application. Under the free exercise claim, Johnson said the court’s inquiry could end if it denies the substantial burden claim. The Alabama Religious Freedom Amendment has never been applied to municipal land decisions, she added. 

In a statement published Tuesday, the Meditation Center said it had complied “at every turn with the demands” of the city and neighbors.

“This included having to prove that a Buddhist-based practice and facility was in fact religious, which was the first time in the City of Mobiles history that had been requested,” the statement read. “Even during this time, the Meditation Center of Alabama continued to serve more than 3,000 people within the community, Spreading peace and kindness and offering any community activities and uplifting offerings connecting with all people and all faiths.”

According to local reporting, the city of Mobile has spent more than $1 million defending the lawsuit. 

Categories:Appeals, Civil Rights, Law, Religion

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