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State Religious Freedom Restoration Act’s provide an alternative to RLUIPA when litigating a Religious Property Dispute

When litigating religious land use cases, it is important to look at state religious freedom restoration acts and add them as a claim to case if the facts of the case permit the same. The recent decision out of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals illustrates this point. In Thai Meditation Association of Alabama Inc. v. City of Mobil, Alabama, Case No. 22-11674 (Oct. 10, 2023), the Plaintiff sought to covert a residential home to a mediation center. At the conclusion of a bench trial, the Court dismissed the claims in its entirety.

The Court of Appeals affirmed in part, reversed and remanded for further consideration on a substantial burden claim under RLUIPA, a Free Exercise Claim and a challenge under the Alabama Constitution’s Religious Freedom Amendment. On remand, the trial court granted summary judgment as to all three claims. In the most recent appeal, the Court of Appeals vacated the trial court’s decision in part, affirmed summary judgment as the Free Exercise Claim, and reversed summary judgment as to RLUIPA substantial burden claim and the Alabama RFRA claim.

With respect to the RFRA claim, the Court evaluated the same in light of the reduced standard of review on the state law substantial burden claim, namely, evaluating the claim as to whether the denial of the use “burdened” the religious assembly under state law, as opposed to “substantially burdened” under federal law. In rejecting the City of Mobile’s argument that “preserving neighborhood character” and “aesthetics and traffic safety” are a compelling governmental interest, the Court, concluded that the generalized invocations of neighborhood character and zoning fail as a matter of law. The Court of Appeals then reversed summary judgment and directed the trial court to enter summary judgement for the Thai Meditation Center on the Alabama RFRA claim.

This case illustrates the point that state law must be considered when thinking through the litigation plan for a religious property dispute. If you have any questions concerning RLUIPA and religious property disputes, please do not hesitate to contact a professional at Dalton & Tomich PLC to discuss your case.

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