The city has spent close to $1 million in legal fees related to the planning denial of a Buddhist-linked meditation center near Dog River.
City of Mobile records indicate it has paid $866,596 to Burr & Forman, the law firm of city attorney Ricardo Woods, defending a religious freedom lawsuit filed by attorneys for Lar Nimityongskul, the owner of a Thai meditation center. The legal bill comes to light as an appeals court has sent the case back down to U.S. District Court over outstanding questions.
Nimityongskul and her family had hoped to get planning approval to build a meditation retreat on property they owned in a residential neighborhood on Eloong Drive. The retreat would include a separate building for a meditation center, dorms for visiting monks and a bathroom facility.
John Lawler, an attorney for Nimityongskul, said the Mobile Planning Commission denied the application despite being told initially by planners that the meditation center would be eligible for a religious exemption. Not being granted a religious exemption or planning approval is a departure for the Planning Commission, Lawler said. He clarified that planning approval is separate from a zoning change. Zoning changes, he said, tend to be less popular.
In his 25 years as the commission’s attorney, Lawler said the body never denied a religious exemption. He called its decision to do so in this case “mind-boggling.”
“Each time a church or for that matter any other business or group came before the commission for planning approval, they were granted planning approval, but with conditions,” Lawler said. “I don’t know of a single case where planning approval was denied. Mobile is very pro-development. They’d approve a nerve gas factory if it provided two or three jobs.”
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 Nimityongskul’s suit against the city.
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 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 the land-use claim.
Woods declined to comment for this story, but Lawler said he is hopeful the city will come to the table for settlement talks, following its setback in court. Lawler said he’s confident the Nimityongskuls will eventually prevail through the court process.
“It’s a travesty the way this has all worked out,” Lawler said. “It is wrong to treat this [Buddhist] community this way. We’re talking about people who have contributed to society.”
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