The four-year dispute between the city and the owners of a proposed Buddhist meditation center near Dog River is slated for trial in federal court starting Tuesday, March 12.
An attorney representing Lar Nimityongskul and her family filed a complaint in U.S. District Court in Mobile claiming the city’s Planning Commission and City Council discriminated against their Buddhist faith and their constitutionally protected freedom of religion by denying approval of plans to build a meditation facility on property on Eloong Drive.
In an interview with Lagniappe, attorney John Lawler said that despite concerns over access and traffic, the main issues with the meditation center revolve around the religious practices hosted there.
“The underlying reason was Buddhism, I believe,” Lawler said.
As evidence of this, Lawler points to two Christian churches less than half a mile away from the almost seven-acre forested area the Nimityongskuls wanted to use for their facility.
One of the central issues in this case stems from whether or not the meditation center can be considered a church, or a religious facility. This question has been an important part of the debate going back to its inception, and even resulted in an attorney for the Planning Commission asking the Nimityongskuls for proof the facility could legally be considered a church.
Despite a letter from the Internal Revenue Service granting it nonprofit status as a charitable organization — a designation which, Lawler argues in the suit, is given to many churches — and accompanying letters provided by several Buddhist leaders, Doug Anderson, the commission’s attorney, argued in an appeal hearing to the Mobile City Council that the center could not be considered a church. Lawler argued in the suit that it is not common for the Planning Commission to ask for proof of a church’s legal status.
If the center is considered a church or place of worship, it would be allowed within a residential area, like the Eloong Drive neighborhood where the property sits. However, planning approval would be needed. Lawler said in that case the city would have to provide reasonable restrictions. He argued that not allowing the center infringes on the First Amendment.
“The city has got to pick the least restrictive means possible, by law,” Lawler said. “The city of Mobile has made accommodations for church after church after church. They made it work.”
During public hearings on the center, opponents cited traffic and access concerns along Eloong Drive, but Lawler said accommodations could have been made to address those concerns. He also argues in the suit that many of the access and traffic concerns are mitigated because the Nimityongskuls’ property is the first one off of Riverside Drive.
“Any impact to Eloong Drive would be minimal, as access to the property is the first along Eloong Drive, after turning from Riverside Drive,” the suit reads. “The other residences along Eloong Drive are located further along that road.”
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.
“Opposing residents cited religious reasons and fear of the Center ‘converting’ others to Buddhism as reasons for their opposition,” the suit reads.
Lawler, in the suit, argued that the Nimityongskuls are not interested in converting others to Buddhism through the meditation center and instead believe in the Buddhist teaching that anyone from any religion or background can find enlightenment through the practice.
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.
“After further investigation, the center found that the North University property was not suitable for construction,” the suit reads. “The installation of drainage, grading the site and fire hydrants made development of the property impracticable.”
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.
While attorneys for the city did not return a call seeking comment for this story, in a response to the 2016 complaint the attorneys denied all the pertinent allegations made in the suit Lawler filed.
The trial is set for 9 a.m. on Tuesday, March 12, in courtroom 3B at the federal courthouse building. U.S. District Judge Terry F. Moorer will preside.
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