A federal judge in Mobile is once again prepared to rule on whether the city can prevent a Buddhist meditation center from opening in a neighborhood near Dog River after an appeals court sent part of the case back down.
Terry Moorer, a judge for the U.S. Southern District of Alabama, heard arguments Wednesday on the merits of a religious freedom claim by the Thai Meditation Association of Alabama, after the Planning Commission and Mobile City Council denied an application to allow it in a residential area of the city.
The lawsuit was filed after Lar Nimityongskul and her family, who run a Thai meditation center at a location on Airport Boulevard, purchased a large home on nearly 7 acres on Eloong Drive in Mobile to convert it into a retreat center. The application was denied by both the Planning Commission and the City Council because of various concerns from neighbors about traffic and compatibility within the neighborhood. Moorer sided with the city on the case, but the 11th Circuit of Appeals in Atlanta vacated portions of his initial ruling.
Roman Storzer, an attorney for Nimityongskul, said the city denied a use allowed and even “encouraged” them to build it in a residential district after planning staff gave the impression the use would be allowed.
“Religious use is allowed with planning approval and the city encourages religious use,” he told Moorer. “The planning approval process is used to mitigate issues, but the city didn’t work with the plaintiff to mitigate issues.”
Moorer, who asked more questions during the plaintiffs’ arguments than the defendants’, argued Storzer’s argument might miss the mark because the law does not allow religious entities carte blanche to locate wherever they want.
“Even within the borders of a neighborhood there can still be areas where religious uses might not be appropriate,” he said. “Why shouldn’t that be something I look at?”
Storzer said he disagreed with the judge’s assessment of the argument. He told Moorer the government “puts the thumb on the scale” when it comes to religious uses and the law does not consider appropriateness a good enough reason to burden a religious facility.
In response, Moorer brought up traffic concerns, calling them “legitimate” issues, but Storzer said traffic concerns, by law, are not significant enough to allow the government to burden a religious facility with a zoning decision.
Storzer also called the complaints about traffic “hearsay” and told Moorer city staff, including the traffic engineer, said there would be “no problem.”
“It’s not a megachurch,” he said. “We’re talking about 30 people at this location. If the property was subdivided for residential homes, it would create more traffic.”
Part of the higher court’s issue with Moorer’s first order has to do with his interpretation of the state’s religious freedom amendment. Under the amendment, the city erred in denying the meditation center’s application, Storzer said. He said there is no “compelling government issue” to prevent planning approval and therefore, under the amendment, approval should be granted.
Mike Strasavich, an attorney for the city, argued the amendment in question doesn’t apply to the meditation center because it uses a definition from the 1901 State Constitution, which states, among other things, that religion should not be established by the government. Strasavich instead argued approving the meditation center because it’s a religious facility would actually be giving religion a “leg up.”
Also, he said since the definition of religious freedom is in the Constitution, courts can not interpret it a different way.
“The courts have no right to expand or restrict the meaning of words,” Strasavich said.
In response to a previous argument made by the plaintiffs, Strasavich said the owners of the meditation center should not have had a reasonable expectation the Planning Commission would vote in their favor, since Nimityongskul had previously given up on an application made at another piece of land, one the owners did not purchase.
Strasavich also argued the city had a right to consider its zoning code when denying the application, even though the meditation center is considered a religious facility by the 11th Circuit.
In addition, Strasavich argued the center’s plan to hold classes three nights per week and retreats throughout the year placed a burden on the neighborhood, which the city had a right to consider.
On the issue Moorer brought up about compatibility or appropriateness within the neighborhood, Strasavich argued there are approximately 9,000 acres of space in the city where the meditation center is allowed by right, including its current location.
“Other districts are available,” he said. “It’s not even a substantial burden if there were less.”
While Moorer told the attorneys he doesn’t know what he’ll “decide ultimately,” he made comments at the end of the hearing that seemed to point to agreement with the defense in the case.
“I don’t think the objections would be less if this organization was a different religion or was a secular use,” he said. “The ultimate decision was based on use and not on the persons applying for it.”
This page is available to our subscribers. Join us right now to get the latest local news from local reporters for local readers.
The best deal is found by clicking here. Click here right now to find out more. Check it out.
Already a member of the Lagniappe family? Sign in by clicking here