(WKRG, MOBILE, ALABAMA)
We can call this another conflict between the City of Mobile and a Buddhist group around the use of property on Dog River. Earlier this year the Mobile City Council and Planning Commission both denied a request by the Meditation Center of Alabama to build a new center at the founder’s home on Dog River. Now the city is telling the group to stop holding retreats along the river altogether. When Buddhists meditate–they don’t say much–but this injunction has people talking.
It asks members of the meditation center to stop holding retreats at the founder’s home–located along dog river. At the heart of this argument is really how you define what they do here. The city claims founder Lar Nimit charges for people to stay in her home. The City’s Attorney says it’s a direct violation of city zoning using a home like commercial property.
“You can’t just do what the planning commission and city council has asked you not to do and there not be some sort of enforcement mechanism that stops you from doing so,” said City Attorney Ricardo Woods. The attorney for the center argues any payments were simply voluntary donations–and no one had to pay to stay.
“No, it’s not commercial at all, no charge, people can make a contribution just like you might make a contribution to the First Baptist Church,” said attorney John Lawler. In a protest from earlier this year–Lawler had the harshest criticism. His criticism was the same when I spoke to him Friday.
“It’s religious discrimination, pure and simple, and I don’t know why the city is going along with this,” said Lawler. Repeatedly, homeowners have said this is not about faith, this is about preserving peace in the neighborhood. Now the City Attorney is saying faith isn’t the issue as well.
“What you have to look at is this is single family use , the focus is not the religious part of anything it is the actual commercial use,” said Woods. For now, any future retreat will be held at the Meditation Center’s Airport Boulevard location. It’s a far cry from the tranquil setting of Dog River but a compromise for now.
John Lawler says he plans on filing a counterclaim against the city. He says they’re still trying to build a new meditation center on Dog River that was rejected by the votes of the Mobile City Council and Planning Commission.
Last march the US Justice Department said it opened an investigation to see if city zoning laws violate religious freedoms. The DOJ continues to interview people and gathers evidence but we don’t know if the feds will pursue charges.
Founder Lar Nimit didn’t want to talk on camera for this story. She referred all comment to her lawyer out of concern she might misstate something in regards to fighting this injunction. Nimit did send this e-mail to me and I’ve pasted the majority of it here:
Around 20 people attended the retreat on March 5th and our teaching monk was a Dhammakaya Buddhist monk from Belgium who skyped in to teach us. For the second retreat we had a Buddhist monk travel from the Dhammakaya Temple in Thailand come to teach us. About 30 people attended this retreat.
I believe that I have a right to host gatherings in my house. They do not bother my neighbors and produce very little noise. During the first retreat a neighbor brought their boat in front of my house and opened loud rap music during our meditation session. And my next door neighbor who lives across the canal was watching us through binoculars and taking pictures of us during both the retreats and during my personal birthday party. At this point I feel I cannot even invite friends, family and guests to come and stay at my house as my privacy and freedom has been invaded.
I am aware that the city of Mobile denied my application to allow us to build a Meditation Center on my R1 property. Our meditation center is still open and we welcome everyone to join us there. We believe our family has the right to practice our religious beliefs and invite people to meditate in our house. There is no fee to join our retreats, and this is not a business. People are welcome to make a donation if they want to, but this is not required.
Some of our friends and members, and the visiting teaching monk from Thailand spent the night at our house. Nobody paid a fee to sleep in my house, as is indicated wrongly in this injunction. Everyone who attended will attest to the truth of these facts. At this point I feel I am being harassed by the city and my neighbors for trying to spread peace and practice my religious beliefs at my own home.
So at point any meditation retreat in the future will be held at our Meditation Center on Airport instead of my house.
Another issue that’s not clear in this is whether these retreats are a nuisance. Lawler said the city could have to show that in this injunction when it goes before a judge. Neither side addresses the nuisance issue in their filings. I asked City Attorney Ricardo Woods whether the city was arguing these retreats were a nuisance and he said I’d have to ask homeowners if they were. The only evidence I can offer from homeowners is anecdotal and really not enough to answer the question of whether or not this situation is a nuisance. Of course, the judge who eventually hears arguments on this injunction may not take that into consideration.
You can read the injunction and evidence submitted by the city in the document below.