The question of whether a local meditation center can be legally considered a religious facility dominated the opening hours of a trial to determine whether the city of Mobile discriminated against the center and its owners because of an affiliation with a branch of Buddhism.
The lawsuit, brought by attorneys for the Meditation Association of Alabama in 2016, argued the city and the Planning Commission violated the constitutionally protected right to religious freedom when they denied the center’s planning application to relocate the center from a busy commercial strip center to a more secluded property in the middle of a residential neighborhood on Eloong Drive.
In a pretrial brief filed March 6, attorneys for center owner Lar Nimityongskul and her family argued that other churches and religious facilities have received planning approval in residential areas and the commission’s failure to do so in this case demonstrates religious discrimination.
In the brief, the plaintiffs’ attorneys stated that the application process started smoothly, but was quickly “derailed.”
“A group of vocal opponents, led by a next-door neighbor to the Property, began a campaign to stop the application process dead in its tracks by getting the City to agree that a Buddhist meditation center was not a ‘religious facility,’” the brief stated.
In his opening statement in U.S. District Court in Mobile on Tuesday morning, Mike Strasavich, an attorney for the city, said questions about the center’s religious background began to arise when neighbors near the property on Dog River began researching it on social media.
Specifically, Strasovich used a newspaper article, Facebook posts and several brochures put out by the center to illustrate that the religious affiliation was, at least, confusing. For instance, Strasavich said, the center promoted itself on Facebook as a “non-profit, non-religious” organization. He said brochures for the center indicated that “anyone could benefit” from the teachings of meditation, regardless of race or religion.
The attorney pointed to a $30 monthly donation listed in a brochure, calling it a “membership fee” to further cloud the question of whether the center has a religious affiliation.
“For most of the population in this area and for neighbors of the proposed center who had never been to a meditation session … at least a question would have been raised to whether this center was religious at all,” Strasavich said.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys, including John Stepanovich, Roman Strozer and Blair Strozer, argued in the brief that the center had to pass a “religious test” when Planning Commission attorney Doug Anderson asked its owners to submit paperwork related to its nonprofit status. The plaintiffs argued the city had never requested that before.
Strasavich agreed the city had never asked for that before, but said the case was unique because there has never been an applicant for consideration as a church or religious facility that “has held themselves out in public as non-religious.”
The first witness called by Blair Strozer was a Buddhist monk named Nicholas Thanissaro, who occasionally teaches at the center. His testimony and cross-examination were mainly related to the religious practice of meditation.
The bench trial before Judge Terry F. Moorer is expected to last a total of eight trial days.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
It looks like you are opening this page from the Facebook App. This article needs to be opened in the browser.
iOS: Tap the three dots in the top right, then tap on "Open in Safari".
Android: Tap the Settings icon (it looks like three horizontal lines), then tap App Settings, then toggle the "Open links externally" setting to On (it should turn from gray to blue).