The Thai Meditation Association of Alabama and several individual plaintiffs (the “Center”) have filed suit against the City of Mobile, Alabama, its  Planning Commission, and City Council (“Mobile”) after the Planning Commission denied the Center’s application to construct and operate a meditation center intended to accommodate Buddhist practices on a 6.7-acre parcel (the “Property”).  The complaint, available here, alleges that Mobile’s denial of  the Center’s application to operate in a residential area is based on its refusal to recognize the Center as a religious institution.

The Center offers teachings in the specific meditation practices of the Dhammakaya school of Buddhism. Currently, the Center operates in a commercial area, next to restaurant, a travel agency, and near an auto parts store, a Taco Bell and a Panda Express. The Center believes the current location is inadequate because the busy commercial environment impedes silent mediation, which “requires a serene environment.”

In 2007, the Center began holding Buddhist ceremonies and meditation classes at a residential property. In 2009, it formally applied to operate a mediation center.  The application was met with a high degree of community opposition.  According to the complaint, residents feared the Center wished to “convert” others to Buddhism.  Given the opposition, the Center withdrew its application and began operating out of its current, strip mall location.

In 2015, the Center identified the Property as a suitable new location and met with planning department staff prior to purchase.  In the pre-purchase meeting, the Center was advised that it would need to receive planning approval for a worship-related use.  The Property is located in an R-1 zone, where churches, schools, monasteries and convents are permitted after site plan approval.

After a public hearing with “tremendous” public opposition, the Center’s application was continued.  During the continuance, planning staff requested an opinion from the Planning Commission’s attorney on whether the Center was a religious organization.  The attorney recommended denial of the application based on the Center’s 501(c)(3) application, which identified the Center as a charity or foundation, and the attorney’s understanding that “[j]ust because meditation is part of a religion (my preacher teaches contemplative prayer) does not make the building a church or the owner a religious organization.” The Planning Commission later denied the Center’s application and the Center then appealed the denial to Mobile City Council.  After debate regarding the religious nature of the Center, the Council voted to uphold the Commission’s denial.

In March of this year, the Center hosted two mediation gatherings attended by approximately 20 people in a plaintiff’s home on the Property.  Without first issuing a notice of violation, Mobile filed suit against the Center and individual plaintiffs in this action, seeking preliminary and permanent injunctions to prevent the Center from holding additional meditation retreats on the Property.  The case was later dismissed when the Center stipulated that it would seek all necessary permits and approvals to operate the Center.

The complaint in this case has three RLUIPA counts (substantial burden, nondiscrimination, and equal terms violations), counts based on free exercise and equal protection, and one state law count of negligent misrepresentation relating to the zoning classification of the Property.

Original Photo by Moyan Brenn, some rights reserved.

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Photo of Karla Chaffee Karla Chaffee

Karla L. Chaffee is a member of Robinson+Cole’s Real Estate + Development Group and is based in the Boston office, focusing on a variety of land use and environmental matters. Karla’s interest in RLUIPA began in law school when she co-authored, “Six

Karla L. Chaffee is a member of Robinson+Cole’s Real Estate + Development Group and is based in the Boston office, focusing on a variety of land use and environmental matters. Karla’s interest in RLUIPA began in law school when she co-authored, “Six Fact Patterns of Substantial Burden in RLUIPA: Lessons for Potential Litigants,” (with Dwight Merriam) published in Albany Government Law Review (Spring 2009). Karla has continued to write and speak on RLUIPA and has represented clients in several federal proceedings, including RLUIPA, First Amendment, and Equal Protection claims. In addition to her RLUIPA practice, Karla has litigated complex environmental matters, defending claims under Massachusetts Chapter 21E. Karla’s transactional experience includes pre-acquisition and pre-financing due diligence, environmental risk assessment and risk mitigation. She also represents clients seeking local zoning approvals and counsels them on the impact of proposed or recently enacted land use legislation, as well as on land use trends across the country.

Karla is also a proud member of Robinson+Cole’s Pro Bono Committee and is dedicated to maintaining pro bono work as part of her practice. Her pro bono clients include individuals and families seeking asylum in the United States. She has also represented nonprofit organizations in obtaining tax-exempt status and has served as legal counsel in a zoning appeal for a nonprofit association created to support and protect a national park.

Photo of Evan Seeman Evan Seeman

Evan J. Seeman is a lawyer in Robinson+Cole’s Hartford office and focuses his practice on land use, real estate, environmental, and regulatory matters, representing local governments, developers and advocacy groups. He has spoken and written about RLUIPA, and was a lead author of…

Evan J. Seeman is a lawyer in Robinson+Cole’s Hartford office and focuses his practice on land use, real estate, environmental, and regulatory matters, representing local governments, developers and advocacy groups. He has spoken and written about RLUIPA, and was a lead author of an amicus curiae brief at the petition stage before the United States Supreme Court in a RLUIPA case entitled City of San Leandro v. International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.

Evan serves as the Secretary/Treasurer of the APA’s Planning & Law Division. He also serves as the Chair of the Planning & Zoning Section of the Connecticut Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Section, and is the former Co-Chair of its Municipal Law Section. He has been named to the Connecticut Super Lawyers® list as a Rising Star in the area of Land Use Law for 2013 and 2014. He received his B.A. in political science and Russian studies (with honors) from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, where he was selected as the President’s Fellow in the Department of Modern Languages and Literature. Evan received his Juris Doctor at the University of Connecticut School of Law, where he served on the Connecticut Law Review. While in law school, he interned with the Connecticut Office of the Attorney General in the environmental department, and served as a judicial intern for the judges of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Court. Following law school, Evan clerked for the Honorable F. Herbert Gruendel of the Connecticut Appellate Court.

Photo of Dwight Merriam Dwight Merriam

Dwight H. Merriam founded Robinson+Cole’s Land Use Group in 1978. He represents land owners, developers, governments and individuals in land use matters, with a focus on defending governments in RLUIPA cases. Dwight is a Fellow and Past President of the American Institute of…

Dwight H. Merriam founded Robinson+Cole’s Land Use Group in 1978. He represents land owners, developers, governments and individuals in land use matters, with a focus on defending governments in RLUIPA cases. Dwight is a Fellow and Past President of the American Institute of Certified Planners, a former Director of the American Planning Association (APA), a former chair of APA’s Planning and Law Division, Immediate Past Chair of the American Bar Association’s Section of State and Local Government Law, Chair of the Institute of Local Government Studies at the Center for American and International Law, a Fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation, a member of the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute National Advisory Board, a Fellow of the Connecticut Bar Foundation, a Counselor of Real Estate, a member of the Anglo-American Real Property Institute, and a Fellow of the American College of Real Estate Lawyers.

He teaches land use law at the University of Connecticut School of Law and at Vermont Law School and has published over 200 articles and eight books, including Inclusionary Zoning Moves Downtown, The Takings Issue, The Complete Guide to Zoning, and Eminent Domain Use and Abuse: Kelo in Context. He is the senior co-author of the leading casebook on land use law, Planning and Control of Land Development (Eighth Edition). Dwight has written and spoken widely on how to avoid RLUIPA claims and how to successfully defend against them in court. He is currently writing a book on the subject, RLUIPA DEFENSE, for the American Bar Association.

Dwight has been named to the Connecticut Super Lawyers® list in the area of Land Use Law since 2006, is one of the Top 50 Connecticut Super Lawyers in Connecticut, and is one of the Top 100 New England Super Lawyers (Super Lawyers is a registered trademark of Key Professional Media, Inc.). He received his B.A. (cum laude) from the University of Massachusetts, his Masters of Regional Planning from the University of North Carolina, where he was the graduation speaker in 2011, and his J.D. from Yale. He is a featured speaker at many land use seminars, and presents monthly audio land use seminars for the International Municipal Lawyers Association. Dwight has been cited in the national press from The New York Times to People magazine and has appeared on NBC’s The Today Show, MSNBC and public television.

Dwight also had a career in the Navy, serving for three tours in Vietnam aboard ship, then returning to be the Senior Advisor of the Naval ROTC Unit at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill where he taught Defense Administration and Military Management as an Assistant Professor in the undergraduate and graduate curriculum in Defense Administration and Military Management. He left active duty after seven years to attend law school, but continued on for 24 more years as a reserve Surface Warfare Officer with two major commands, including that of the reserve commanding officer of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. He retired as a Captain in 2009 after 31 years of service.