The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit recently considered a long-running religious land use dispute involving the Thai Meditation Association of Alabama (TMAA) and the city of Mobile, Alabama. The dispute involves TMAA’s desire to convert a property zoned for residential use into a religious meditation center. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the District Court’s ruling that the City violated the First Amendment Free Exercise Clause and the Alabama Constitution’s Religious Freedom Amendment (ARFA) when it denied TMAA’s zoning application. However, the Eleventh Circuit reversed the District Court’s granting of summary judgment on TMAA’s substantial burden claim under the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

TMAA is a religious organization belonging to the Dhammakaya school of Buddhism, whose “purpose is the teaching and research into growth and development of mind and spirit through meditation and expanding the knowledge of Buddhism.” In 2007, TMAA operated out of a converted house in a residential neighborhood. That operation was short-lived as TMAA was forced to relocate following neighbor complaints and TMAA’s inability to obtain zoning authorization for that location.  TMAA next moved to its present location in a shopping center located on a commercial street. According to TMAA, the shopping center was less than ideal, as it precluded congregants from religious meditation due to the noisy environment and cramped accommodations for its religion. TMAA, therefore, searched for a new location where it could practice its religion, including meditation.

In 2015, TMAA purchased a property in the City’s R-1 (residential) zoning district. Under the City’s zoning code, the R-1 zone allows residential use as-of-right and certain religious uses subject to “planning approval” by the Planning Commission. Before purchasing the property, TMAA participated in pre-application meetings with City officials and received positive feedback on its proposed religious use of the property. However, this changed once TMAA formally submitted its zoning application and public opposition manifested. Public opposition included the Buddhist character of the proposed use, with some members of the public questioning whether TMAA’s proposed use was religious in nature. Others objected due to concerns about compatibility and traffic in the residential neighborhood. In the end, the Planning Commission denied TMAA’s application, the City Council denied TMAA’s appeal, and litigation ensued.

The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the City regarding TMAA’s RLUIPA substantial burden, First Amendment Free Exercise, and ARFA claims; TMAA appealed. Beginning with the substantial burden claim, the Eleventh Circuit concluded that there remained genuine issues of material fact requiring further proceedings. For example, factual disputes existed about whether there were alternative sites for TMAA to operate its meditation center. The City contends that TMAA owns a 100-acre parcel that would be a suitable alternative location.  TMAA, through its land use expert, opined that its 100-acre parcel was unsuitable for that proposed use. Additionally, there are factual disputes regarding whether the Planning Commission deviated from its typical procedures, including allegedly editing meeting minutes to obscure the true reason for denial. The Eleventh Circuit reversed the District Court’s grant of summary judgment to the City on this claim.

Next, the Court affirmed the District Court’s grant of summary judgment to the City on TMAA’s Free Exercise claim, concluding that the City’s R-1 zoning process is neutral and generally applicable, involving only rational basis review. The City’s alleged interests in traffic safety and zoning are “rationally related to a legitimate government interest.” Therefore, permissible governmental concerns under this standard of review.

Finally, the Court reversed the District Court’s determination that the City did not violate ARFA. ARFA is similar to RLUIPA’s substantial burden provision, except that it requires a religious land user to demonstrate the existence of a burden on religious exercise, but not a substantial burden. If a burden on religious exercise is established, the government must then satisfy strict scrutiny review (i.e., that the burden is the least restrictive means of achieving a compelling government interest). Unlike RLUIPA, a plaintiff may be able to show a burden on religious exercise even where the burden is only incidental or there is a mere inconvenience on religious exercise. The Eleventh Circuit concluded that the City’s denial of TMAA’s zoning permit caused TMAA to at least suffer some burden. It next concluded that the City’s stated concerns regarding traffic and “preserving the character of the property and the surrounding neighborhood,” did not rise to the level of compelling government interests. According to the Court, “vague, generalize[d] invocations of governments interests in ‘zoning’ and ‘neighborhood character’ are insufficient to carry the government’s burden,” and the traffic concerns were unsubstantiated in the record. Based on the above, the Eleventh Circuit directed the District Court to enter judgment for TMAA on this claim.

The Eleventh Circuit’s decision is available here.

*This post was co-authored by Robinson+Cole Real Estate + Development Group Lawyer Eden (Hunter) Yerby