A religious freedom lawsuit filed on behalf of the owners of a Buddhist meditation center in Mobile appears to be headed back to litigation, after a federal appeals court threw out the lower court’s ruling.
In a ruling handed down Monday, Nov. 16, a three-judge panel with the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta found U.S. Judge Terry F. Moorer erred in his interpretation of various state and federal laws in denying most of Lar Nimityongskul’s suit against the city of Mobile over a Planning Commission and City Council decision to deny approval of her application to place a meditation center inside a residential neighborhood near Dog River.
Nimityongskul, who operates the Meditation Center of Alabama out of a strip mall location on Airport Boulevard, bought a 5,000-square-foot home and 6.7 acres on Eloong Drive for the purpose of moving the center to a more serene location.
The center applied for zoning changes to allow owners to construct a cottage for visiting monks, a meditation facility, a bathroom facility and a parking lot on the property, but neighboring residents had issues with the changes.
“Following expressions of intense public opposition, the city denied the applications,” the ruling states. “The association and its incorporators sued, alleging violations of the Free Exercise and Equal Protection clauses of the United States Constitution, several provisions of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, the Alabama Constitution and state common-law principles.”
Attorneys for the meditation center argued in their appeal Moorer failed to correctly interpret a law related to the use of land for a religious purpose. The law states the government cannot implement a land use regulation that imposes a “substantial burden” on the religious exercise of an individual.
The appeals court found the Buddhist meditation center does engage in religious exercise and the regulation may pose a “substantial burden” on the practice. Moorer ruled it didn’t because, as the appeals court found, he misinterpreted a previous federal court ruling.
“The plaintiffs in this case contend that the city’s denial of their zoning applications substantially burdens their religious exercise because, they say, at the association’s current location, the traffic noise interferes with meditation, the building is too small to accommodate classes and lectures, and there is no place to host visiting monks for overnight retreats,” the ruling states. “Accordingly, it isn’t necessary for a plaintiff to prove — as the District Court here seemed to assume — that the government required her to completely surrender her religious beliefs; modified behavior, if the result of government coercion or pressure, can be enough.”
The judges want the District Court to take a look at the case again and answer questions related to this aspect of the case.
The appeals court also vacated Moorer’s decision to throw out the plaintiffs’ claims of the city’s violation of the Constitution’s free exercise clause, because that decision was tied to Moorer’s inaccurate interpretation of land use claim.
The plaintiffs also argued in the appeal the city discriminated against them based on religion. The three-judge panel agreed with the District Court in throwing that out, however, because the meditation center owners could not prove the city’s decision-making bodies were discriminatory.
Attorneys for the meditation center argued neighbors made discriminatory comments at a community meeting about the zoning application. As court records reveal, reactions varied from a physically upset man saying he was “Christian and this is unacceptable,” to another saying, “This is not a church, this is a Buddhist temple and we don’t need that.” However, those examples don’t prove the city discriminated against Nimityongskul, according to the judges.
“It’s not enough, though, for the plaintiffs to show that community members opposed their applications on prohibited grounds,” the ruling stated. “They must prove that the city officials who rejected them acted with discriminatory intent and we cannot attribute the residents’ purported bias to city officials absent at least some proof that officials ‘ratified’ it.”
The appeals court also found a statement from an attorney representing the Planning Commission claiming the meditation center is not a church could also not be used as proof of bias against it, as the comment did not come from a decisionmaker.
The court also argued the center’s own marketing, which told prospective consumers it was “non-religious” undercut its discrimination claims.
The panel also found Moorer incorrectly threw out a claim from the plaintiffs that their religious freedom as it is established in the Alabama Constitution was infringed upon. The plaintiffs claim the city violated the state’s Religious Freedom Amendment (ARFA).
Unlike the federal religious land use claim, the plaintiffs argued the text of ARFA doesn’t require a “significant” burden be placed on a religious facility for the government to be in conflict with it. The panel argued the District Court interpreted ARFA to be similar to the land use statute and therefore found, incorrectly, that a significant burden was needed.
“No matter how tempting it may be — whether to harmonize state and federal law or, as the District Court suggested, to “control the floodgates of litigation” — we aren’t at liberty to graft the adverb ‘substantially’ onto a provision (or set of provisions) that won’t accommodate it,” the order states. “Accordingly, we vacate the District Court’s decision rejecting the plaintiffs’ ARFA claim and remand for further proceedings consistent with our interpretation.”
Thai Meditation appeal
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