A federal judge in Mobile has ruled for the city in a religious-freedom lawsuit brought by the Meditation Center of Alabama.
U.S. District Judge Terry F. Moorer ruled the city and the Planning Commission did not violate the religious liberty of Lar Nimityongskul in denying her application to build a Buddhist meditation center on residential property near Dog River.
John Lawler, an attorney for Nimityongskul, said he expects to appeal the ruling to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.
Lawler argued that in almost every case, and in every other case he was involved in with the city, “special accommodations” were made when a religious facility needed planning approval, except in this case.
One of the main complaints for neighbors was a concern over traffic the center would create along Eloong Drive, which many argued was a substandard street. Lawler said in many previous cases, a compromise was found on traffic issues, but this was different.
“They were treated differently than any other business, or religious facility,” Lawler said of the Nimityongskuls. “Traffic is a problem on almost every application. Time after time the city sides with the developer and the issue is worked out. In this case it wasn’t.”
In the order, Moorer referred to examples of other churches in similar situations, but found many of those were on major roadways, whereas Eloong Drive is not considered a major roadway.
The order comes following years of battles between Nimityongskul and the city. The center is currently located in a shopping center along Airport Boulevard, according to the suit, but that location near the bustling thoroughfare is not ideal for meditation practice, as vehicle noise can be heard from inside the center.
The Nimityongskuls had initially planned to move the center into a home on Airport Boulevard, which they bought in 2007. In 2009, the family sought to move the meditation center there, but the plan faced opposition from neighbors, according to the suit.
The Nimityongskuls also considered using about 100 acres donated near University Boulevard as a site for the meditation center, but determined the property wasn’t suitable, according to the suit.
In April 2015, the plaintiffs found the Eloong Drive property. The 6.7-acre parcel is “densely forested” and has a view of Dog River, according to the suit. It is “uniquely suited” for the center’s work.
“The property is located approximately 1,000 feet away from the Church of the Nazarene, located on Riverside Drive,” the suit reads. “The property is located a couple blocks away from the South Bay Congregation on Gill Road.”
While the property currently has a single-family home on it, the plaintiffs had planned to add another four-bedroom cottage, a bathroom facility and a 2,500-square-foot building to house the meditation center. The additional buildings would be allowed if the property is considered for use as a church, according to the suit.
The application was denied following public hearings and moved to the City Council, where it was subsequently denied. Following the Council decision, Lawler and the plaintiffs decided to sue in federal court.
Moorer argued in his opinion that the center wasn’t denied because of its religious affiliation.
“Plaintiffs … failed to demonstrate the actions of the decision-making bodies were motivated by discriminatory intent,” the order read. “It is well established that a plaintiff challenging an action as discriminatory must go further than identifying disparate treatment and must prove the decision-making body acted with discriminatory intent.”
Lawler disagreed and used Planning Commission attorney Doug Anderson’s reaction to the meditation center’s application as an example. He said Anderson forced Nimityongskul to provide documentation from the Internal Revenue Service to prove the meditation center was a religious facility. Lawler said that is “not required.” In determining the center to not be a religious facility, city staff recommended Nimityongskul go to the Board of Zoning Adjustment, or make a rezoning request.
At trial, defense attorneys presented the court with several examples where Nimityongskul had promoted the center as “non-religious.”
The court found there is no evidence that planner Bert Hoffman, in a pre-development meeting, told Nimityongskul the use was allowed on property zoned “residential” because the center could be considered a religious facility.
“Similarly, there is no evidence Mr. Hoffman’s intent was to deceive Mrs. Nimityongskul by his statement,” the order reads. “Mrs. Nimityongskul conclusively knew the Planning Commission would ultimately determine whether to grant planning approval. Plaintiffs also failed to demonstrate any damages that arose from such misrepresentation since the application was ultimately considered under the planning approval criteria that was applicable to a ‘church or religious facility,’ and the evidence at trial confirmed plaintiffs closed on the purchase of the subject property and removed all sale contingencies prior to submitting the meditation center application to the city.”
Lawler disagreed, saying Hoffman made a determination.
“He told her it was zoned properly,” Lawler said. “If he had said ‘no,’ we would have gone to the Board of Zoning Adjustment first and then the courts.”
Although the order states Nimityongskul agreed to purchase the property without any conditions prior to submitting an application to the city, Lawler said it was after this meeting with Hoffman and his determination that helped convince her to pull the trigger on the purchase.
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