Guest Post by Tavo T. True-Alcala

Earlier this year, the Thai Meditation Association of Alabama and several individual plaintiffs (“the Center”) filed suit against the City of Mobile, Alabama (“the City”), alleging that the denial of its application to operate a meditation center in a residential area was a violation of its rights under RLUIPA on three counts. Specifically, the complaint claims that the City of Mobile’s Zoning Ordinance, both on its face and as applied, violates the Center’s rights as a religious institution by substantially burdening its religious exercise, discriminating on the basis of religion, and treating it on less than equal terms. The complaint also alleges that the Center was misled by City officials when it was encouraged to apply for a planning use approval, which is the appropriate zoning relief for religious organizations seeking to locate in a residential zone, rather than a use variance which is required for  commercial uses in residential zones. The City denied the Center’s application because it ultimately concluded that the Center’s proposal was for a commercial, not religious, use. Further details of this case can be found in our previous post.  Most recently, the court decided the City’s Motion to Dismiss, granting the dismissal of the Center’s facial RLUIPA claims, but denying its request to dismiss the claim of negligent misrepresentation.

The City claimed that the facial challenges presented in the Center’s complaint are not supported by any reference to specific provisions of the Zoning Ordinance that allegedly violate RLUIPA on their face. According to the City, the Zoning Ordinance is, on its face, neutral, and “does not discriminate between similar religious and non-religious entities or uses, and does not place a ‘substantial burden’ on Plaintiffs’ religious exercise,” and therefore contended that the facial allegations should be dismissed. The City further averred that as the Center knew its anticipated use was subject to City approval, and that this knowledge precludes a claim of misrepresentation, whether or not the application was denied.

On October 12, an Alabama federal magistrate judge issued a report recommending that the City’s motion be granted as to all facial claims, but denied as to the claim of negligent misrepresentation.  In considering the facial challenges, the magistrate judge found that the Zoning Ordinance does not on its face infringe upon the rights of any religious organization by imposing a substantial burden on religious exercise, discriminating on the basis of religion, or causing unequal treatment.   The magistrate judge further distinguished facial and as applied claims by reasoning that including the specific instance of the denial of the Center’s application in the consideration of the facial challenges “would risk emptying the ‘as-applied’ challenge of its meaning.”

While the motion to dismiss the facial challenges was granted, the magistrate judge did not recommend dismissal of the negligent misrepresentation claim. The City argued that the Center could not have relied on the staff representations since it still required City approval of its intended use. The magistrate judge disagreed, finding  persuasive the Center’s allegation that it relied on misrepresented information to determine that the planning approval process was appropriate, rather than the variance use process.

After due and careful consideration, the district judge ordered the recommendations be adopted, granting the dismissal of the facial challenges but denying the dismissal of the negligent misrepresentation challenge.

Original Photo by Moyan Brenn, some rights reserved.