The Meditation Center of Alabama and the city of Mobile have reached a settlement in Mobile County Circuit Court, but that doesn’t mean the legal wrangling will stop.
The settlement resolves a lawsuit the city filed in May, after the meditation center held two separate retreats at a residential home on Eloong Drive in March, despite not having planning department approval to do so.
The settlement requires the meditation center to seek city approval before holding any future retreats at the home near Dog River or elsewhere. The settlement also requires the city to give notice of events being held there they deem to be in violation of the zoning ordinance before taking legal action.
Despite the settlement, John Lawler, the meditation center’s attorney, said it doesn’t bar the Nimityongskul family from holding meditation sessions, or “prayer meetings,” at the site. Instead, Lawler said, the center would need approval before going ahead with plans to establish a center on the property.
Doug Anderson said the settlement would require the center to get planning approval for any future retreats and could force them to alter plans for get togethers “depending on size.”
Anderson said the city can’t stop a gathering of friends, comparing it with a Bible study at someone’s home, but he said retreats where owner Lar Nimityongskul advertises the business is different.
The meditation center’s application, which would have permitted the operation of the center, two additional cottages, a parking lot and restrooms on Eloong Drive, was denied by the Planning Commission and the City Council after being recommended for approval by planning staff.
Lawler said Nimityongskul has been denied due process from the beginning and he plans to file a federal lawsuit claiming religious discrimination, even after an investigation into the matter by the Department of Justice was suspended. The lawsuit would be based on the fact the center offers Buddhist meditation, Lawler said.
He said the city would normally give notice that an establishment was in violation of the zoning ordinance, but in the case of the meditation center it didn’t.
“The center had two meetings and the city filed a suit,” Lawler said. “That’s unusual. The city normally gives notice first. They wanted to catch us, but they didn’t catch us.”
During public hearings on the subject at both the Planning Commission and City Council levels, neighbors spoke in opposition to the center. One neighbor, local attorney Tamela Esham, maintains that at no point were neighbors’ concerns based on religion. They are more concerned about traffic on a narrow roadway. Esham said the center’s last retreat attracted close to 50 people.
“That’s a lot of people in a small, quiet neighborhood,” she said. “The retreats, whether a business or religious, are inappropriate for a residential neighborhood.”