Appeals court says ‘preserving neighborhood character’ is not a sufficient justification for denying meditation center zoning request

by | Oct 19, 2023

For the second time, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has weighed in on a property use dispute between the city of Mobile, Alabama, and the Thai Meditation Association of Alabama (TMAA), which – since 2015 – has sought to convert property currently zoned as residential into a meditation center. The city denied the rezoning request, citing traffic and neighborhood concerns, and that sparked a lawsuit.

Following a 2020 bench trial that ended in judgment for the city of Mobile on all counts, an 11th  Circuit panel sent the case back to the trial court for further consideration, specifically of TMAA’s religious liberty claims under Alabama’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. On remand, the district court granted summary judgment to the city on those remaining three claims, prompting TMAA to bring the case back to the federal appeals court for review again.

The 11th Circuit again reversed the trial court’s decision on the claim under Alabama’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, ordering the court to grant summary judgement in favor of TMAA. Most importantly, the court rejected the city’s argument, embraced by the District Court, that the burden on TMAA’s religion caused by the zoning denial was justified by a compelling government interest in “preserving the character of the … neighborhood” and addressing traffic concerns. Here is an excerpt from the opinion:

To begin, we have never held that neighborhood character or zoning are compelling government interests sufficient to justify abridging core constitutional rights.

The City discusses at length the statements of neighbors living near the Eloong Drive Property to substantiate its concerns about traffic. But review of these statements reveals that they are the same generalized, sometimes speculative, concerns that we have cautioned are inappropriate. To carry its burden to demonstrate a compelling government interest, the City must present more evidence of its interest, and that evidence must be specific. The City must link its concerns to the particular details, and alleged ills, posed by TMAA’s application. Because it failed to do so, it was not entitled to summary judgment in this matter.

Although not all state Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) laws are the same, laws like the federal RFRA and RLUIPA remain important tools in protecting religious freedom for all. By requiring the government to demonstrate a compelling government interest necessitates a substantial burden on religious exercise, they provide a workable legal framework for resolving disputes between the government and religious adherents.

To be clear, religious adherents do not always prevail under these laws – and should not! But they can be effective safeguards against unnecessary burdens on religion. In the context of zoning decisions, they have been an invaluable tool in protecting the religious freedom of houses of worship looking for an appropriate place to meet. All too often, nice-sounding goals like “preserving neighborhood character” can mask a discriminatory bias, conscious or unconscious, particularly against minority faiths.

In this case, the court did affirm the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the city on the Free Exercise claim, finding that the city’s action was neutral with respect to religion and thus did not trigger strict scrutiny on that claim. On the RLUIPA claim, the court found that neither side was entitled to summary judgment because of continued disputed facts that needed to be sorted out by the trial court and sent it back yet again.