Posted by: Patricia Salkin | November 17, 2020

Eleventh Circuit Holds Any Burden, Rather Than Just “Substantial” Burdens, Under the Alabama Religious Freedom Amendment Triggers Strict Scrutiny

This post was authored by Matthew Loescher, Esq.

Four individuals who incorporated the Thai Meditation Association of Alabama, Inc., applied for zoning permits to construct a Buddhist meditation and retreat center in a residential area of Mobile, AL. After substantial public opposition, the City denied the applications. The Association and its incorporators sued, alleging violations of the Free Exercise and Equal Protection Clauses of the United States Constitution, several provisions of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, the Alabama Constitution, and state common-law principles. The district court rejected all of the plaintiffs’ claims.

The court first analyzed plaintiffs’ RLUIPA’s substantial-burden provision and the Free Exercise Clause. Plaintiffs argued that the City’s denial of their zoning applications substantially burdened their religious exercise because, at the Association’s current location, the traffic noise interfered with meditation, the building was too small to accommodate classes and lectures, and there was no place to host visiting monks for overnight retreats. The court rejected the district court’s determination that it was necessary for plaintiffs to prove that the government required them to completely surrender their religious beliefs. Instead, the court found it would be sufficient to show that government coercion or pressure resulted in plaintiffs’ modified behavior. Since the district court expressly tethered its rejection of the plaintiffs’ claim under the Free Exercise Clause to its treatment of their substantial-burden claim under RLUIPA, the court vacated and remanded the free-exercise claim for reconsideration alongside the substantial-burden claim.

Plaintiffs next claimed that they were treated less favorably than The Alba Fishing and Hunting Club, which they presented as a valid comparator. While both Alba and the plaintiffs sought planning approval for special use in a single-family residential district, the court found that they did so for different reasons. Specifically, Alba desired to repair and expand an existing club, whereas the plaintiffs wanted to construct an entirely new facility. The court therefore affirmed the district court’s rejection of the plaintiffs’ equal-terms claim.

The court also rejected the contention that the district court committed clear error in finding that the plaintiffs failed to prove that a majority of the members of either the Planning Commission or the City Council acted with an intent to discriminate against them on the basis of religion. Thus, it affirmed the district court’s rejection of the plaintiffs’ claims under RLUIPA’s nondiscrimination provision and the Equal Protection Clause.

Lastly, plaintiffs argued that the City’s denial of their zoning applications violated the Alabama Religious Freedom Amendment (“ARFA”) of the Alabama Constitution. Plaintiffs claimed that in viewing the historical backdrop against which ARFA was adopted, the absence of the term “substantial” was so conspicuous that the court could only conclude that its omission was intentional from the RLUIPA’s predecessor, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The court found that in every place that RFRA employed the term “substantial burden,” ARFA used the word “burden.” Pursuant to the ARFA, any burden—even an incidental or insubstantial one—would be sufficient to trigger strict scrutiny. Accordingly, the court vacated the district court’s decision rejecting the plaintiffs’ ARFA claim and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Thai Meditation Association of Alabama, Inc v City of Mobile, AL, 2020 WL 6705450 (11th Cir. CA 11/16/2020)

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