A year’s long legal dispute continued this week in the Eleventh Circuit where the court ruled that summary judgment was improper against Thai Mediation Association of Alabama, Inc.in their lawsuit against the City of Mobile. 
Thai Mediation Association of Alabama, Inc. (TMAA) is a Buddhist religious organization located in Mobile, Alabama. In 2015 they bought a residential property in hopes of converting it into a meditation center and allege that before purchasing the property the city gave positive feedback on their plans. However, the property is zoned for residential use and TMAA had to apply for planning approval to use the property for religious purposes. This application was denied by the City prompting TMAA to file suit under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), claiming the city’s actions imposed a substantial burden on their religious practice. The RLUIPA is an act designed to protect religious land uses from discriminatory processes used to exclude or otherwise limit the location of religious assemblies.
In the case’s first trip to the Eleventh Circuit, the court reviewed the outcome of a bench trial and remanded part of the case, including the RLUIPA claim, back to the district court for further consideration. The parties then filed cross motions for summary judgment which the district court granted for the City, leading to the case’s second trip to the Eleventh Circuit.
On appeal the Eleventh Circuit held that summary judgment was improper. To prove a RLUIPA substantial burden claim a religious organization must show that government action coerced the organization to behave in a way that violates its religious tenants. The court had previously articulated six factors that district courts should consider when evaluating these claims:
- Whether the organization has a demonstrated need for new or more space;
- Whether the actions of the city effectively deprive the organization of any viable means to engage in their religious activity;
- Whether there is a relationship between the impeded conduct and the organizations religious exercise;
- Whether the City’s decision-making process was arbitrary or fueled by animus;
- Whether the denial of the zoning application was final or did it allow for modified applications; and
- Whether the burden on religious activity is self-imposed.
The Eleventh Circuit found that the district court had improperly granted summary judgment because there were factual disputes that directly implicated multiple of the above factors.
This case is instructive for religious organizations because it shows the need to develop detailed factual records during the permit application and review process. Developing a strong record is key to litigating RLUIPA claims and to this end religious organizations should seek legal advice early in the process. Representation by an experienced land use attorney will ensure that your organization develops a strong record and avoids common pitfalls of zoning applicants.
If you are beginning the zoning application process, or feel your religious society was discriminated against in the zoning process, please contact us so that we can help you better understand RLUIPA and navigate burdensome or discriminatory land use regulations.
About Dalton + Tomich
Established in 2010, Dalton + Tomich PLC is comprised of religious liberty, land use, denominational trust law, and business law attorneys. Learn more about our services at https://www.daltontomich.com/.
This blog was authored by a post bar law clerk, not an attorney. While we strive to provide informative content, this post should not be considered legal advice.
 Thai Mediation Association of Alabama, Inc. v. City of Mobile, — F.4th —-, 2023 WL 6386801 (11th Cir. Oct. 2, 2023).
 Thai Mediation Association of Alabama, Inc. v. City of Mobile, 980 F.3d 821, 831–32 (11th Cir. 2020).