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.