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Thai Meditation Association of Alabama, Inc. v. City of Mobile

United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Southern Division

September 28, 2018

THAI MEDITATION ASSOCIATION OF ALABAMA, INC., et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
CITY OF MOBILE, ALABAMA, Defendant.

          ORDER

          TERRY F. MOORER, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter is before the Court on the parties' cross motions for summary judgment. Defendant City of Mobile filed a Motion for Summary Judgment and Memorandum in Support, (Docs. 89 & 90), a reply brief in support, (Doc. 104), a response and supporting documents to Plaintiffs' motion for partial summary judgment, (Docs. 100 & 101), and a response in opposition to Plaintiffs' sur-reply, (Doc. 110). Plaintiffs Thai Meditation Association of Alabama, Inc., Sivaporn Nimityongskul, Varin Nimityongskul, Serena Nimityongskul, and Prasit Nimityongskul have filed a Motion for Partial Summary Judgment and Memorandum in Support, (Docs. 91 & 94), a reply brief in support (Doc. 106), a response and supporting documents to Defendant's motion for summary judgment, (Docs. 97 & 98), and a sur-Reply in opposition to Defendant's motion for summary judgment, (Doc. 112). For the reasons stated below, Defendant's motion for summary judgment is due to be GRANTED IN PART AND DENIED IN PART, and Plaintiffs' motion for partial summary judgment is due to be DENIED.

         I. Procedural Background

         This matter arises out of the Defendant's denial of Plaintiffs' zoning applications to construct a Buddhist meditation center in a residential district. The Complaint asserts seven counts: (1) Defendant imposed and implemented land use regulations, both on their face and as applied, in a manner that places a substantial burden on Plaintiffs' religious exercise in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc(a); (2) Defendant imposed and implemented land use regulations, both on their face and as applied, in a manner that discriminates against Plaintiffs on the basis of religion and religious denomination in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc(b)(2); (3) Defendant imposed and implemented land use regulations, both on their face and as applied, in a manner that treats Plaintiffs on terms that are less than equal to nonreligious assemblies in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc(b)(1); (4) Defendant has deprived Plaintiffs of their right to free exercise of religion under the First Amendment in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983; (5) Defendant has deprived Plaintiffs of their right to equal protection under the laws under the Fourteenth Amendment in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983; (6) Defendant imposed and implemented land use regulations, both on their face and as applied, in a manner that places a burden on Plaintiffs' religious exercise in violation of Article I, § 3.01 of the Alabama Constitution; and (7) Defendant has negligently misrepresented facts relating to Plaintiffs' zoning classification in violation of Alabama state law. (Doc. 1).

         Defendant filed a motion to dismiss certain parts of the Complaint. (Doc. 18). The Court granted in part Defendant's motion to dismiss as to the facial components of Counts 1, 2, and 3. (Doc. 31). Defendant's motion to dismiss as to Count 7 was denied. Id. The parties subsequently filed cross motions for summary judgment-Defendant's motion on all counts, and Plaintiffs' motion on Counts 1 through 6. Each party briefed their position and provided evidentiary support thereof to the Court. This matter is now ripe for consideration.

         II. Factual Background

         In 2015, Plaintiffs Sivaporn Nimityongskul (“Nimit”), Varin Nimityongskul (“V. Nimit”), Serena Nimityongskul (“S. Nimit”), and Prasit Nimityongskul (“P. Nimit”) (collectively, “the Nimit Plaintiffs”) purchased property located at 2354 and 2410 Eloong Drive (“the Eloong property”) for the primary purpose of constructing a Buddhist meditation center on the site. (Doc. 92-4; Doc. 92-29; Doc. 92-30, p. 19 ¶¶ 12-22). Plaintiff Thai Meditation Association of Alabama, Inc., (“TMAA”)[1] has a leasehold interest in the Eloong property. (Doc. 92-29).

         In September 2015, Nimit submitted an application to the City of Mobile Planning Commission (“the Planning Commission”) for Planning Approval, Planned Unit Development (“PUD”), and Subdivision Approval (collectively, the “Applications” or “Plaintiffs' Applications”) to permit TMAA's development on the Eloong property. (Doc. 93-21). In the Applications, Plaintiffs sought construction of a 2, 400-square foot meditation center building, a 2, 000-square foot cottage for visiting monks, a 600-square foot restroom facility, and associated parking. (Doc. 93-22). The Planning Commission ultimately denied Plaintiffs' Applications, and the Mobile City Council (“the City Council”) denied Plaintiffs' appeal, upholding the Planning Commission's decision. (Doc. 92-20, p. 2).

         A. The Zoning Ordinance

         Chapter 64 of the Code of the City of Mobile, Alabama (“the Zoning Ordinance”) divides Mobile into fifteen zoning districts, identified in Section 64-3 of the Zoning Ordinance. (Doc. 92-12, pp. 20-53). Section 64-3 of the Zoning Ordinance sets forth the specific regulations governing the applicable districts and delineates uses permitted by right and uses requiring planning approval. Id. at p. 22-53, 137. If a requested use in a particular zone is not specifically listed, the City of Mobile's director of inspection services or his agent may determine in which district the use may be permitted by right or with planning approval. Id. at p. 137.

         Under the Zoning Ordinance, a “church or religious facility” is permitted by right in all business districts, but it must receive planning approval to locate in any residential district. Id. at p. 146. Accordingly, before a church or religious facility may locate in a residential area, the Planning Commission must determine if the facility's location would be in harmony with, and appropriate for, the residential district. Id. at p. 137.

         The Eloong Property is located in an R-1 Residential District (“R-1 District”). (Doc. 93-1). R-1 Districts are composed of primarily “one-family dwellings and small open areas . . . where residential development seems likely to occur.” (Doc. 92-12, p.22). Churches and schools are permitted with Planning Approval in R-1 Districts because Defendant wishes to encourage suitable neighborhood environments for families. Id. Because Plaintiffs sought to build a religious facility in an R-1 District, they were required to apply for Planning Approval.

         B. Plaintiffs' Religious Beliefs

         TMAA is a Buddhist religious organization. (Doc. 93-24, p. 1). The organization's purpose is “[t]eaching and research into growth and development of mind and spirit through meditation and to expand the knowledge of Buddhism.” Id. It is affiliated with the Dhammakaya school of Buddhism, a sect of Theravada Buddhism headquartered in Wat Phra Dhammakaya in Pathum Thani, Thailand. (Doc. 93-75 ¶¶ 14-16). TMAA's religious exercise includes “prayer, meditation, various religious ceremonies, lectures, teaching and learning.” Id. at ¶ 17. While there are many different schools of Buddhism, TMAA engages in the meditation technique known as Dhammakaya meditation, which is practiced by thousands of temples in Thailand. Id. at ¶ 13, 17. Meditation sessions at TMAA are led by either monks or lay teachers trained in Dhammakaya meditation. Id. at 17. Plaintiffs believe “Shakyamuni Buddha, the founder of the Buddhist religion, achieved his great spiritual insights as a result of years of meditation, and he taught that mediation is central to following his teachings.” Id. at ¶ 21. Every week, TMAA offers four meditation classes with talks on Buddhist scriptures and morality. Id. at ¶ 36.

         Defendant, however, questions Plaintiffs' meditation practice as religious exercise. (Doc. 100, p. 3). Defendant bases its viewpoint on various public announcements, in which Plaintiffs explained why religion is not important for meditation. (See, e.g., Doc. 92-16). For instance, in a 2010 article published by AL.com, Nimit explained, “[T]his meditation center was established in order to teach people how to find inner peace and happiness. My ultimate mission is to spread world peace through inner peace, and have people see that mediation is not to be associated with any one particular, race, culture, and religion . . . .” (Doc. 92-16, p. 7). TMAA also holds itself out to be a non-profit, non-religious organization on social media and other website directories. Id. at p. 10; 14-15. Furthermore, in her deposition, Nimit agreed:

The great thing about meditation is that philosophy/religious belief is not important. Meditation is about consciousness. The beliefs of the mind become trivial. You dive deep into the heart of the matter to gain access to your soul - your inner reality. Therefore, meditation can be practiced by people of different religions or no religion at all.

(Doc. 101-2, pp. 6-7).

         Plaintiffs assert they describe their meditation practices as “non-religious” because TMAA is open to all, and “following Buddhist teachings does not require rejection of the particular theistic concepts that are central to Judeo-Christian notions of what is meant by ‘religion.'” (Doc. 94, p. 5). In fact, both the Planning Commission and City Council heard testimony to this effect at the hearings in front of each body. (See Doc. 92-19, p. 18 (“The meditation [center] has elicited itself on Facebook and other social media as non-religious to indicate that one does not have to be Buddhist in order to come learn meditation.”); Doc. 93-34, p. 12 (“Buddhist liberation is essentially tied to meditation and meditation practice.”). Nevertheless, Plaintiffs' religious beliefs were questioned throughout the processing of the Applications. (See Doc. 92-19; Doc. 93-34).

         C. Plaintiffs' Location History

         TMAA began in 2007 at a home located at 4567 Airport Boulevard, Mobile, Alabama. (Doc. 93-73 ¶ 23). The home provided housing for a Buddhist monk who taught meditation classes there. Id. In August 2007, a citizen complained to Defendant that Plaintiffs had posted a sign that advertised services that were provided inside of the home. (Doc. 93-10, p. 1). A City Inspector came to the home and informed Nimit the sign was not permitted and must be removed. Id. Nimit removed the sign, and the inspector issued a Notice of Violation. Id., pp. 1-2. The Notice gave Plaintiffs ten days to either cease the violation or apply for Planning Approval. Id. at p. 2.

         On September 14, 2007, Plaintiffs applied for Planning Approval to continue offering meditation services at the home. (Doc. 93-12). The application received tremendous community opposition, and many neighbors came to the Planning Commission hearing to oppose the application. (Doc. 1 ¶ 85; Doc. 32 ¶ 85). Similar to the Applications at issue in this case, opposition to Plaintiffs' application for the Airport Boulevard home targeted both legitimate community concerns as well as Plaintiffs' religious beliefs. For instance, one resident wrote a letter stating:

There is no concern on their part for the welfare of children growing up in this quiet area, no thought given to the additional traffic and the danger it represents, and no concern for the loss of property value that we will all suffer because of their unwanted intrusion . . . . While serving with the Air Force in Vietnam many years ago I had the occasion to visit Thailand, where there are countless temples, and the streets are filling with Buddhist priests, wearing their colorful, orange robes. It was a quaint sight, but I had no desire to bring one back to my neighborhood, and install him there . . . . We do not want a meditation center, a non-sectarian church, a dental clinic, a service station, a bingo palace, or anything that is alien to family life intruding upon the citizens of this area . . . .

(Doc. 93-14).

         On November 1, 2007, the Planning Commission recommended denial of Plaintiffs' application based on concerns regarding the possibility for future rezoning or use variance requests, and the lack of compliance with the parking surface, maneuvering, tree and landscaping, and buffering requirements of the Zoning Ordinance. (Doc. 93-13, p. 3). The Planning Commission's Staff Report explained, “[T]he meditation center would likely be a relatively ‘quiet' neighbor and might generally be conducive to location in a residential area. However, as parking improvements and, most likely, building code improvements would be required to accommodate the proposed use, the general compatibility appears to be less favorable.” Id. Plaintiffs later withdrew their application. (Doc. 93-11).

         In 2009, Plaintiffs relocated TMAA to its current site at 3821 Airport Boulevard, Mobile, Alabama. (Doc. 93-73 ¶ 6). The current site is located in a shopping center on a busy street. Id. at ¶ 7. Plaintiffs assert its current location creates significant hardships for their religious exercise because their meditation practice requires a serene environment, they lack sufficient space for visiting monks and overnight retreats, and participants have encountered safety issues while attending classes. Id. at ¶¶ 10-16. Defendant, however, asserts Plaintiffs' proposed meditation center would not alleviate Plaintiffs' size concerns because it is only 200 square feet larger than its current location, and Plaintiffs own numerous homes throughout the city where they could host visiting monks. (Doc. 100, p. 7). Additionally, Defendant asserts Plaintiffs have received 100 acres of viable land where they could host their meditation activities. Id.

         Plaintiffs aver they received approximately 100 acres of donated land in November 2014 for the purpose of building a meditation center. (Doc. 92-30, pp. 41-44; Doc. 93-73 ¶ 25). However, after investigating the property and consulting with their land use professional, Plaintiffs found the donated acreage was not a feasible location. (Doc. 93-73 ¶ 26). Thus, Plaintiffs began searching for other property suitable for their meditation practices, and they discovered the Eloong Property. Id. at ¶ 27.

         D. Procedural History of Plaintiffs' Applications

         On April 24, 2015, Plaintiffs attended a predevelopment meeting with their attorney and realtor, Bill Youngblood (“Youngblood”), and two City of Mobile Planners, Bert Hoffman (“Hoffman”) and Marie Cross York (“York”) to discuss the possibility of relocating TMAA to the Eloong property. (Doc. 93-27; Doc. 93-25, p. 3). The purpose of a pre-development meeting is for Defendant to gather information from applicants or potential applicants about what they are proposing to do at a specific location. (Doc. 93-5, p. 3). Additionally, Defendant provides applicants information about the process they must go through in order to obtain approvals. Id. Defendant reviews, inter alia, the district in which applicants wish to locate and whether the property is a legal lot of record. Id. Thus, if an applicant's proposed use is not permitted in the district, in which the property is zoned, Defendant would inform the applicant of such at the predevelopment meeting. Id. at p. 4.

         At the predevelopment meeting for Plaintiffs' potential Applications, the discussion centered around concerns about construction as well as the religious nature of their proposed meditation. (Doc. 93-25, p. 9). Following the meeting, Defendant concluded Plaintiffs' Applications would need the following approvals: “(1) Planning Approval for worship related use; (2) PUD because of a second habitable structure on the property; (3) Subdivision; and (4) Variance for non-paved parking and maneuvering.” (Doc. 93-27).

         On September 11, 2015, Plaintiffs submitted the Applications to construct a meditation center on the Eloong property. (Doc. 93-21). The Applications were, then, assigned to York for review and preparation of a Staff Report. (Doc. 93-4, p. 5; Doc. 93-25, p. 7). The Planning Commission issued the first Staff Report for Plaintiffs' Applications on October 15, 2015, which noted:

The applicant is requesting Planning Approval to allow a meditation center in an R-1, Single-Family Residential District, Planned Unit Development approval to all multiple buildings on a single building site, and Subdivision approval to create one legal lot of record. Religious facilities require Planning Approval when located in R-1 districts.

(Doc. 93-1, p. 4).

         Furthermore, the Staff Report recommended the Applications be held over until the November 19, 2015, Planning Commission meeting so Plaintiffs could revise the Applications to reflect compliance with Engineering, Traffic, and Landscaping requirements. (Doc. 93-1, pp. 6-11). However, their Applications were ultimately reviewed at the October Planning Commission meeting instead of the proposed November meeting.

         At the October 15, 2015 Planning Commission meeting, Plaintiffs' Applications were met with strong community opposition. (See Doc. 93-43). Specifically, a nearby resident of the Eloong property, Tamela Esham (“Esham”) explained every single neighbor in the community opposed the project. Id. Some residents opposed the Applications for environmental reasons, and other residents opposed them because of the “lack of information” regarding the proposed project. Id. at pp. 12-13.

         Additionally, questions were raised regarding Plaintiffs' religious beliefs. Id. at p. 7. The Planning Commission's attorney, Doug Anderson (“Anderson”), stated:

For this to be proper within the zoning ordinance, it has to be a religious use. We're going to need written documentation, more than just an application, that says this is a religious building or religious use. We're going to need documentation to show - to prove that this actually is more than just a yoga or a meditation facility but that it is a religious use[;] otherwise planning approval is not going to be the proper procedure but a Board of Adjustment variant would be proper . . . . If you can just provide us whatever written documentation other than just saying that it's religious. We've got to have something that shows it's not a commercial use but it is a religious use.

Id. at pp. 7-8.

         Hoffman, also, informed the Planning Commission his staff “separately did some research trying to determine if it was a religious or non-religious facility based on how it's handled in other cities [, ] and [they] found mixed results.” Id. at p. 19. The Planning Commission recommended holding over Plaintiffs' Applications until the December Planning Commission meeting. Id. at pp. 15-17.

         During the time between the October 2015 Planning Commission meeting and the December 2015 holdover meeting, Plaintiffs provided Defendant documentation addressing their religious status. The documentation included TMAA's articles of incorporation, tax documentation, letters from Buddhist monks, letters from the Dhammakaya Foundation, and a letter from Eric Loomis, an associate professor of Philosophy, explaining the centrality of meditation to the Buddhist religion. (Doc. 93-29, pp. 3-5; Doc. 93-24; Doc. 93-34, pp. 10-12). TMAA's articles of incorporation state, “The corporation has been organized for . . . teaching and research into growth and development of mind and spirit through meditation and to expand the knowledge of Buddhism.” (Doc. 93-24). Upon receipt of the items, Hoffman consulted Anderson to further evaluate Plaintiffs' religious status. (Doc. 93-45). In a November 23, 2015, email to Anderson, Hoffman requested, “Doug - If you can give us a legal opinion as to whether the attached documentation is sufficient to determine if the proposed meditation center on Dog River is ‘religious' or not, it would be appreciated.” Id. at p. 1. In response, Anderson asserted:

I do not think it is. This shows the IRS has given it tax exempt status as a charity or foundation - there are tests a church has to go through with the IRS to be classified as a church/religious organization. Just because meditation is part of a religion (my preacher teaches contemplative prayer) does not make the building a church or the owner a religious organization. Recommend denial.

Id.

         At the December Planning Commission Meeting, the Planning Commission, once again, entertained viewpoints from those in favor of Plaintiffs' Applications as well as those in opposition to them. (Doc. 93-34). Similar to the October meeting, there was discussion regarding both Plaintiffs' religious status as well as residents' concerns regarding the compatibility of the meditation center in the Eloong neighborhood. Id. Following extensive discussion, the Planning Commission moved to deny Plaintiffs' Applications. (Doc. 93-34, p. 44-47).

         On December 3, 2015, the Planning Commission issued the Staff Report recommending denial of Plaintiffs' Applications. (Doc. 93-22). In relevant part, the Staff Report recommended denial because Plaintiffs' proposed use was not “approvable via the Planning Approval process, ” “multiple buildings cannot be allowed for unapproved use, ” and “legal counsel of the Planning Commission” determined Plaintiffs had not provided sufficient IRS documentation to be classified as a church or religious facility under the Zoning Ordinance. Id. at p. 12. However, Defendant informed Plaintiffs their Applications were denied based on compatibility, site access, and traffic increase. (Doc. 92-17, p. 2). Plaintiffs filed a Notice of Appeal to the City Council seeking reversal of the Planning Commission's denial. (Doc. 92-18).

         The week before the City Council reviewed Plaintiffs' appeal, Esham composed an email to City Councilman C.J. Small (“Councilman Small”) expressing her concerns about Plaintiffs' proposed construction. (Doc. 93-35). In her first email to Councilman Small, Esham expressed her concerns that the meditation center would increase traffic and noise, which would “fundamentally change the nature and character of our residential neighborhood.” Id. at p. 2. A second email to Councilman Small, however, touched on the religious nature of Plaintiffs' meditation center. (Doc. 93-36, p. 1). In defending her position regarding TMAA's compatibility within the neighborhood, Esham wrote that Nimit's “version of events that this is a religious issue” is “inaccurate and misguided.” Id.

         Another resident of the Eloong neighborhood also reached out to members of the City Council prior to the January appeal meeting. Resident Greg Marshall (“Marshall”) wrote Councilman John Williams (“Councilman Williams”) regarding a rumor that TMAA would be a “NUDE yoga center.” (Doc. 93-53). Marshall expressed, “It's just not compatible with the neighborhood, and it's just a business flying under the veil of religious use exemptions.” Id. Councilman Williams responded to the email, “You just saying nude makes me certain NO is the answer. CJ [Councilman Small] is with us here as well[.]” Id.

         The City Council reviewed Plaintiffs' appeal on January 19, 2016. (Doc. 92-19). After extensive discussion regarding TMAA's compatibility with the Eloong neighborhood as well as dialogue regarding Plaintiffs' religious beliefs, the City Council upheld the Planning Commission's decision. Id. at p. 91. Plaintiffs' appeal failed by a vote of six to one, with one council member abstaining. Id.

         Plaintiffs' motion for partial summary judgment asserts Defendant's application of the Zoning Ordinance burdened their religious exercise and discriminated against them on the basis of religion. Defendant's motion for summary judgment attempts to rebut Plaintiffs' assertions on all claims.

         III. Standard of Review for Summary Judgment

         Summary judgment should be granted only if “there is no issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c) (“Rule 56”). The party seeking summary judgment bears “the initial burden to show the district court, by reference to materials on file, that there are no genuine issues of material fact that should be decided at trial.” Clark v. Coats & Clark, Inc., 929 F.2d 604, 608 (11th Cir. 1991). Once the moving party has satisfied its responsibility, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to show the existence of a genuine issue of material fact. Id. “If the nonmoving party fails to make ‘a sufficient showing on an essential element of her case with respect to which she has the burden of proof,' the moving party is entitled to summary judgment.” Id. (quoting Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317 (1986) (footnote omitted)). “In reviewing whether the nonmoving party has met its burden, the court must stop short of weighing the evidence and making credibility determination of the truth of the matter. Instead, evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor.” Tipton v. Bergrohr GMBH-Siegen, 965 F.2d 994, 999 (11th Cir. 1992) (internal citations and quotations omitted). The mere existence, however, of any factual dispute will not necessarily compel denial of a motion for summary judgment; rather, only material factual disputes preclude entry of summary judgment. Lofton v. Sec'y of Dep‘t of Children and Family Servs., 358 F.3d 804, 809 (11th Cir. 2004).

         The applicable Rule 56 standard is not affected by the filing of cross motions for summary judgment. See Gerling Global Reinsurance Corp. of America v. Gallagher, 267 F.3d 1228, 1233 (11th Cir. 2001). Indeed, the Eleventh Circuit has explained that “[c]ross-motions for summary judgment will not, in themselves, warrant the court in granting summary judgment unless one of the parties is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on facts that are not genuinely disputed.” United States v. Oakley, 744 F.2d 1553, 1555 (11th Cir. 1984) (citations omitted). However, it is, also, true cross motions may be probative of the absence of a factual dispute where they reflect general agreement by the parties as to the dispositive legal theories and material facts. Id. at 1555-56.

         IV. Analysis

         A. Standing

         Before addressing the parties' substantive claims, the Court must first determine whether TMAA has standing to bring this action.

         “The question of standing ‘involves both constitutional limitations on federal court jurisdiction and prudential limitations on its exercise.'” Bennett v. Spear, 520 U.S. 154, 162 (1997) (citations omitted). “To satisfy the ‘case' or controversy' requirement of Article III standing, which is the ‘irreducible constitutional minimum' of standing, ” the plaintiff must demonstrate three elements. Id. (citations omitted). “First, the plaintiff must have suffered an ‘injury in fact' - an invasion of a legally protected interest which is (a) concrete and particularized . . . and (b) ‘actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical.'” Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560 (1992) (internal citations and citations omitted). “Second, there must be a causal connection between the injury and the conduct complained of-the injury has to be fairly . . . trace[able] to the challenged action of the defendant, and not . . . th[e] result [of] the independent action of some third party not before the court.” Id. (citations omitted). “Third, it must be ‘likely,' as opposed to merely ‘speculative,' that the injury will be ‘redressed by a favorable decision.” Id. (citations omitted).[2]

         First, Defendant argues TMAA has not suffered an actual injury because it was not an applicant on the Applications submitted to Defendant and the Planning Commission. (Doc. 90, p. 46). Defendant maintains TMAA does not have standing to bring this lawsuit because it had no legal interest in the Eloong property from the day the Applications were submitted through the day the Applications were denied. Id. TMAA did, however, gain a leasehold interest in the Eloong property prior to the filing of this lawsuit. (Doc. 92-29, p. 2).

         Standing under Article III is determined at the time that the complaint is filed. Dillard v. Chilton Cty. Comm'n, 495 F.3d 1324, 1339 (11th Cir. 2007). In this case, at the time Plaintiffs filed their Complaint, TMAA had a leasehold interest in the Eloong property. (See Doc. 1; Doc. 92-29). Additionally, TMAA was referred to as an interested party throughout the paperwork and proceedings before the Planning Commission and City Council, and Plaintiffs' Applications specifically requested using the property as a meditation center. (See Doc. 92-7). Defendant's assessment of TMAA's ability to bring suit is contrary to the purpose of the doctrine of standing: it “is not a technical rule intended to keep aggrieved parties out of court.” 59 Am.Jur. 2D Parties § 29 (2018). All of the Plaintiffs in this case have a legally protected interest in the Eloong property, they were all injured by Defendant's denial of planning approval, and a favorable decision by this Court will redress their harm. Thus, TMAA has standing under Article III to bring suit against Defendant. Furthermore, based on the foregoing reasons, TMAA, also, meets the requirements of standing for purposes of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”).

         B. Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”)

         Both parties seek summary judgment with respect to Plaintiffs' RLUIPA claims (Counts 1, 2, and 3). Plaintiffs argue Defendant's decision denying their Applications to construct a Buddhist meditation center violates RLUIPA and their free exercise of religion. The Complaint alleges Defendant violated RLUIPA in the following ways: (1) by imposing and implementing land use regulations in a way that substantially burdens religious exercise (Count 1); (2) by implementing a land use regulation that discriminates on the basis of religion (Count 2); and (3) by applying the Zoning Ordinance in a way that treats Plaintiffs on less than equal terms with other religious and nonreligious assemblies (Count 3).

         1. RLUIPA - Substantial Burden Provision (Count 1)

         Congress enacted RLUIPA “'in order to provide a very broad protection for religious liberty.'” Holt v. Hobbs, 135 S.Ct. 853, 859 (2015) (citation omitted). RLUIPA concerns two areas of government activity: land use regulation-the provision at issue in this case-and religious exercise by institutionalized persons. 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc; 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1. The Court's analysis of Plaintiffs' substantial burden claim involves three considerations: (1) whether Plaintiffs have jurisdiction to bring a claim under RLUIPA; (2) whether Plaintiffs have established a prima facie case that Defendant imposed a substantial burden on their religious exercise; and (3) if Plaintiffs established a prima facie case, whether Defendant can justify the burden imposed by demonstrating a compelling interest achieved by the lease restrictive means. See Midrash Sephardi, Inc. v. Town of Surfside, 366 F.3d 1214, 1225 (11th Cir. 2004).

a. Jurisdiction is Appropriate Under RLUIPA
RLUIPA's land use regulation provision only applies . . . where one of three jurisdictional perquisites is met: (1) the land use regulation that allegedly imposes a substantial burden is implemented as part of a plan or activity that receives federal funding; (2) the substantial burden affects, or its removal would affect, interstate commerce; or (3) the substantial burden arises from the state or ...

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