Tuesday, November 17, 2020

11th Circuit Allows Buddhist Center To Move Ahead With RLUIPA and State Law Claims

 In Thai Meditation Association of Alabama, Inc. v. City of Mobile Alabama, (11th Cir., Nov. 16, 2020), the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals remanded to the district court some of the claims by a Buddhist group that its rights were violated when the city Planning Commission and City Commission refused to approve its proposed meditation center.  The court held that the district court had used the wrong test to determine whether  the refusal imposed a "substantial burden" in violation of RLUIPA and the 1st Amendment. The Court said in part:

it isn’t necessary for a plaintiff to prove—as the district court here seemed to assume—that the government required her to completely surrender her religious beliefs; modified behavior, if the result of government coercion or pressure, can be enough. ...

However the court rejected plaintiffs' religious discrimination claim, saying in part:

It’s not enough .. for the plaintiffs to show that community members opposed their applications on prohibited grounds—they must prove that the city officials who rejected them acted with discriminatory intent. And we cannot attribute the residents’ purported bias to city officials absent at least some proof that the officials “ratified” it.

The court also held that Alabama's Religious Freedom Amendment requires plaintiffs to merely show a "burden", rather than a "substantial burden" on their religious exercise. The Court said in part:

Given the post-RFRA context in which ARFA was adopted, and its pointed rejection of the phrase “substantially burden” in favor of “burden” simpliciter, we conclude that qualifier’s omission was intentional. No matter how tempting it may be—whether to harmonize state and federal law or, as the district court suggested, to “control[] the floodgates of litigation”—we aren’t at liberty to graft the adverb “substantially” onto a provision (or set of provisions) that won’t accommodate it....