In November, the court sent parts of a case about a seemingly-unwelcome religious center back for district court reconsideration. The Thai Meditation Association of Alabama, a Buddhist organization, had applied for zoning permits to construct a meditation and retreat center in a residential area of Mobile. The neighborhood expressed fierce opposition to the construction, and the Planning Commission denied the application. Although the Planning Commission—and the City Council on appeal—cited concerns about site access, traffic, and compatibility with the neighborhood, the Association believed the denial was rooted in religious animosity.

The plaintiff brought claims under the Free Exercise Clause, Alabama’s RFRA-like constitutional amendment, and RLUIPA’s substantial-burden, equal-terms, and nondiscrimination provisions. The district court ruled for the city on all claims. On appeal, the court affirmed findings that the Association did not prove that the city acted with discriminatory intent or, for its equal-terms claim, provide a similarly situated comparator. However, it held that the district court incorrectly applied the substantial-burden standard and misinterpreted the Alabama Religious Freedom Amendment.

In the Eleventh Circuit, under Midrash Sephardi, Inc. v. Town of Surfside, 366 F.3d 1214 (11th Cir. 2004), a regulation must impose more than a mere inconvenience on religious exercise to constitute a “substantial burden” under RLUIPA. However, the regulation need not completely prevent religious exercise; the standard is met where significant pressure directly coerces the religious adherent to conform its behavior. Still, reasoning that the application denial did not completely impede religious exercise, the district court granted summary judgment to the city. Chiding the failure to apply the correct standard, the court remanded both this claim and the Free Exercise claim decided by the same analysis, supplying factors to consider in determining whether the denial meets the Midrash standard.  The panel also directed the district court to revisit its analysis under the ARFA. The lower court had improperly required the Association to demonstrate a “substantial” burden under the act, and therefore held it to a higher-than-necessary standard.

Reviewing for clear error, the court affirmed the findings that the Association failed to show, based on factors in Village of Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Development Corp., 429 U.S. 252 (1977), that Planning Commission and City Council officials who had denied their applications were motivated by discriminatory intent. Without a doubt, the community expressed opposition to the construction of the meditation and retreat center. For example, one man at the Planning Commission hearing was observed crying and saying that, as a Christian, he found it unacceptable; the City Attorney also made comments that he did not believe the center is a religious facility. Nonetheless, the court did not find this evidence to show that the Planning Commission and City Council “ratified” residents’ and the City Attorney’s apparent bias, as there was no evident link between the comments and decision.

The Association additionally fell short of showing that the precipitating sequence of events and an alleged departure from the normal decisionmaking process exposed discriminatory intent. While alleging that the city required more of the Association than churches to verify its religious status, the Association insufficiently acknowledged its own role in this: in marketing, it—at least for a time—branded itself as a “non-religious organization.” Further, upon requests from both the Association and the city, the Planning Commission evaluated the application under criteria applicable to “religious facilities” without dispute.

Regarding the RLUIPA equal terms claim, the court upheld the rejection of the Association’s proffered similarly situated comparator. Unlike the Association, the Alba Fishing and Hunting Club was a longtime resident of its neighborhood and sought only to expand an existing use. Thus, its receipt of permit approval showed merely different, not unequal, treatment. As this ruling shows, the bar for a establishing a similarly situated comparator, and in turn the prerequisite for prevailing on a RLUIPA equal terms claim, remains high.

The district court has yet to determine whether the Association will prevail on its RLUIPA substantial burden, Free Exercise, and ARFA claims. For now, however, the Eleventh Circuit’s opinion serves as a clear reminder of RLUIPA’s demands and the primacy of clear standards and language.

Thai Meditation Association v. City of Mobile, 980 F.3d 821 (11th Cir. 2020).

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Alexandra A. Haggarty

Alex Haggarty represents developers and landowners in real estate and land use matters. Her real estate practice includes acquisition, disposition, development and entitlement of commercial, residential and agricultural land. Alex also works with developers in public hearings and appeals for zoning, annexation, subdivision…

Alex Haggarty represents developers and landowners in real estate and land use matters. Her real estate practice includes acquisition, disposition, development and entitlement of commercial, residential and agricultural land. Alex also works with developers in public hearings and appeals for zoning, annexation, subdivision and other land use approvals. Alex assists with rural land and conservation easement transactions, as well.