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Alabama’s protection of religious exercise stronger than federal law


Religious organizations often turn to courts when their freedom of religion is being infringed by the government. Restrictions on the religious exercise of a person or institution come in many forms, unfortunately. The implementation of land use regulations is one of them.

Thanks to Congress, if a land use regulation is implemented in a manner that imposes a “substantial burden” on the exercise of religion, there is a remedy under federal law: the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

In addition to the RLUIPA and other claims that can be asserted under the U.S. Constitution (the First Amendment, Due Process Clause, and Equal Protection Clause), many states have laws affording the same protections. And while federal law sets the floor for religious protections, it is not the ceiling. In other words, states can enact laws that are more protective than federal law.

Alabama is one of these states, according to the November 16, 2020, published opinion by the Eleventh Circuit (Thai Meditation Assn. of Alabama, Inc. v. City of Mobile, Alabama).

In that case, four individuals incorporated an association, the Thai Meditation Association of Alabama, Inc., and applied for zoning permits to build a Buddhist meditation and retreat center in a residential area of the City of Mobile, Alabama.

After the City denied the applications, the association and its incorporators sued. They asserted several constitutional and statutory violations in their lawsuit, under both federal and state law.

Two claims are significant here, both of which the trial court dismissed as a matter of law:

(1) a federal claim under the “substantial burden” provision of RLUIPA, and

(2) a state claim under the Alabama Religious Freedom Amendment (ARFA) to the Alabama Constitution.

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit found that the trial court erred in dismissing these claims. Each is briefly discussed below.

Substantial Burden Claim under RLUIPA

The Eleventh Circuit explained that a “substantial burden” is “akin to significant pressure which directly coerces the religious adherent to conform his or behavior.”

That standard is broader than the interpretation applied by the trial court, where it observed that a “substantial” burden exists only when regulations “completely prevent” a religious activity or “force adherents to forego religious precepts.”

After all, “substantial,” which is the word that qualifies “burden,” “does not mean [a] complete, total, or insuperable” burden on the religious exercise.

ARFA Claim Under the Alabama Constitution

The question faced by the Eleventh Circuit on the state law claim is essentially this: Is the Alabama Constitution more protective of religious exercise than federal law?

The Eleventh Circuit answered the question in the affirmative.

The court emphasized that the language of ARFA never once uses the phrase “substantial burden”; rather, ARFA uses the term “burden” without any qualification as to the level or extent of burden that would trigger strict scrutiny.

Put another way, although a plaintiff must show a “substantial” burden under federal law (RLUIPA), any burden on religious exercise in Alabama is prohibited (unless it is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest).

What does the decision mean for religious organizations in Alabama?

For the Thai Meditation Association of Alabama, Inc., that decision kept their case alive. The trial court’s decision was vacated in part and the case sent back for further proceedings.

For other religious organizations in the Eleventh Circuit (AlabamaFlorida, and Georgia), this case not only reiterates the proper standard under the substantial burden provision of RLUIPA, but also clarifies it in a way that favors and protects religious exercise more broadly.

For individuals and religious organizations in Alabama, at least under the federal court’s interpretation, the Alabama Religious Freedom Amendment (ARFA) to the Alabama Constitution is more protective of religious exercise than federal law.

Now that’s a win for religious freedom in Alabama!


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