Prayer is how Wilborn Jones talks to God, but meditation is how he listens.
Jones, a devout parishioner of Most Pure Heart of Mary Catholic Church downtown and a probation officer at Strickland Youth Center, began meditating in 2010 as a way to relieve stress.
“I tried it for the first time and meditated for 45 minutes,” he said. “At 55, I didn’t know I could sit anywhere that long with my legs crossed. Now, I’m 60 and I’m still doing it.”
Jones was one of many residents who spoke in support of a religious meditation center and cottage planned for construction on a residential lot on Eloong Drive. The development was denied after an appeal to Mobile City Council on Tuesday, affirming a Planning Commission recommendation.
Opposition to the proposal was rooted in concerns over traffic on the narrow street and the center’s appropriateness within a residential neighborhood. The debate drew many speakers on both sides of the appeal, but councilors were unanimous in their decision.
However, Councilwoman Bess Rich abstained from the vote, warning of possible implications related to religious discrimination.
Rich noted the similarities between this appeal and one brought by the Islamic Center of Mobile in 2013, a case in which both the Council and Planning Commission denied an application to allow a mosque and classroom facilities to expand along East Drive in Rich’s district. Similarly, opposition was based upon concerns over traffic.
When the application came back to the body under the threat of a Justice Department investigation for religious discrimination, Rich said, it was approved with little discussion.
Planning Commission attorney Doug Anderson said the two situations are “apples and oranges.” Anderson, who was initially hired by U.S. Attorney Kenyen Brown to handle the complaint against the city in the Islamic Center’s case, recused himself from it after being hired by the city.
He said the proposed Islamic Center project was on a wider street, in an area with a variety of approved uses. Alternately, Anderson said, the proposed meditation center is surrounded by residential property and on a narrower street.
Councilman C.J. Small, who represents the area in question, said the two situations are different because the Islamic Center already existed on the property where it wanted to expand and the proposed meditation center would be new.
Anderson also questioned whether the meditation center, founded by Lar Nimityongskul, was even “religious” in nature. He said the center’s IRS documents don’t specify.
Rich argued that the center’s incorporating papers prove there was a religious intent since its founding. Even so, Anderson said, the Planning Commission still had the right to deny its use on a residential lot.
Nimityongskul told councilors she started the nonprofit religious organization in a house eight years ago in order to share meditation with the community. It has since expanded to a shopping center along Airport Boulevard. She now wants to move the center to a more secluded location and thinks the Eloong Drive property, which she purchased in August, would be perfect because it is densely covered by trees.
She said she doesn’t charge visitors who want to learn meditation from Buddhist monks, who participate in person or via Skype. The center does accept donations, she said.
Dr. Kent Welsh told councilors that fear and misinformation have fueled much of the opposition to the project to this point. He said the center doesn’t host more than about 20 visitors even during weekend events, so increased traffic shouldn’t be an issue. Welsh also touted the medical and emotional benefits of meditation.
John Lawler, an attorney for Nimityongskul, accused those in opposition of religious discrimination and said that if the First Baptist Church wanted to use the property to build a mission, there would be no opposition.
“I find it hard to understand how 13 residents on one street could influence so many others by saying it’s a traffic concern for us,” Lawler said. “I think they said more than that.”
Eloong Drive neighbor Clark Kelly said he and others are offended by the suggestion that there opposition is based on religious bias. He said the opposition is only due to concerns over traffic and the appropriateness of the facility in a residential district.
“We would oppose it regardless, if it were a religious … a corporate retreat site, or a Girl Scout camp,” he said. “We want to preserve the character of the neighborhood.”
Small agreed, saying Eloong Drive was too narrow for any more development. He said the opposition was not based on religion and he invited Nimityongskul to move the center to any of the empty shopping centers on Dauphin Island Parkway.
After the decision, Kelly said he was pleased that the council upheld the Planning Commission decision, but was also pleased that those in opposition were given a chance to “clear the air” about way they rejected the project.
Lawler said a representative from the U.S. Attorney’s office was in the audience and if they didn’t pick up the case, he would advance it to Mobile County Circuit Court because he claims the Planning Commission didn’t follow its own rules.
This post was updated at 4:37 p.m. on Jan. 20, 2016 to correct the name of the downtown church.
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