The city is under a preliminary U.S. Department of Justice investigation over its handling of the zoning of a proposed Buddhist meditation center in a residential zone near Dog River.
The Meditation Center of Alabama’s application to build structures on two lots of residential property on Eloong Drive for a meditation center was denied by the Mobile Planning Commission in December. That decision was upheld on appeal to the Mobile City Council in January.
A March letter from U.S. Attorney Kenyen Brown states the DOJ will be reviewing those decisions pursuant to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000. The act “prohibits application of land use regulation” that “imposes a substantial burden on religious exercise absent a compelling justification pursued in the least restrictive means; treats a religious assembly or institution on less than equal terms with nonreligious assemblies or institutions; discriminates against religious entities on the basis of religion or religious denomination, or totally excludes, or unreasonably limits religious assemblies, institutions, or structures within a jurisdiction.”
City spokesman George Talbot said the city intends to cooperate with the investigation and will provide all the requested records and documentation.
“It’s our belief this was handled appropriately and in a legal manner,” Talbot said. “We expect it will be resolved.”
John Lawler, an attorney for owner Lar Nimityongskul, could not be reached for comment this week, but argued religious discrimination in a brief prepared for the appeal to the City Council in January.
In the brief, Lawler wrote that planners Bert Hoffman and Richard Olsen originally found in September 2015 the center could be placed in a residential district because it was religious in nature, and as a result the Planning Commission’s failure to approve it went against the religious land use act.
Those in opposition to the center have continually said their concerns over traffic on the single-lane Eloong Drive and neighborhood character have nothing to do with religion. Local attorney and neighbor Tamela Esham said she’s opposed to the building of multiple structures in the front yard of a residence.
“This has never been about religion,” Esham said. “Unfortunately, the [Nimityongskuls] have made it about religion. Our position all along, whether it’s religious or a business, is it’s not compatible with the location.”
Nimityongskul submitted an application in 2007 to allow a meditation center at a residence on Airport Boulevard, according to planning records. Those records include a letter Nimityongskul wrote to civil engineer Frank Dagley and another man detailing a meeting she’d had with Hoffman. Hoffman had told her staff was set to deny the application because as a church, she needed fire marshal approval and other city code regulations.
In the letter, Nimityongskul argues the center is not a church.
“I bought this home to be used as a home, not a church as Mr. Hoffman thought,” she wrote. “We would like to offer our home to be use [sic] as a group of people getting together for learning meditation for two times a week and some weekend … This is like people having yoga or Bookclub [sic] class at their home.”
Councilman C.J. Small, whose district includes the property in question, said he was advised by City Council attorney Jim Rossler to not comment on the investigation.
Councilwoman Bess Rich, the lone dissenter when the council voted in January to uphold the Planning Commission’s initial decision, said Tuesday that her concerns over the denial were in response to a similar situation involving the expansion of a mosque and school for the Islamic Society of Mobile. In that case, the council eventually allowed for the expansion after two approvals by the Planning Commission.
In the case of the meditation center, Rich said the site was bigger than the mosque site and would host fewer people. She added that Eloong Drive could be widened at the expense of the center, if necessary.