A federal judge has ruled that Muslims in the Murfreesboro congregation, Tennessee have a right to occupy the new mosque. The judge's decision overrules a previous decision by a county judge that prohibited the Muslims from using the mosque.
According to The New York Times, the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department and the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, filed separate lawsuits on Wednesday against Rutherford County, asking that the congregation be allowed to use its new center.
The lawsuit filed in the federal court of Nashville alleges that Rutherford County discriminated against the Muslims and denied their constitutional right of worship.The Muslims said they were forced to comply with requirements different from those applied to Christians. They said this violates the Constitution and the federal civil rights statute. MNSBC reports that a memorandum to the federal court reads: "If ICM were a Christian church, it would have been granted a certificate of occupancy and would be worshipping in its new facility today." The memorandum cited 20 instances of Christian churches that have been allowed to build since 2000, saying "... the discriminatory treatment of the mosque also sends a powerful message to the Muslim community that they are second-class citizens, not worthy of the same rights or protection as Christian churches."
According to Eric Rassbach, a lawyer with the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit law firm that represented the Muslims,“What the judge did was wrong in that he held the mosque to a much higher standard than any other institution applying for a land-use permit in Rutherford County." He said: "This case is pretty bad in the sense that usually you get neighbors who come in and complain about noise, traffic and congestion even if there is an underlying issue like we don’t like Orthodox Jews or Buddhists in our midst. Here it is just blatantly about not wanting Muslims.”
The US District Judge Toddd Campbell, granted the mosque an emergency order to allow the Muslims use the building for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan that starts at sunset Thursday.
The Murfreesboro mosque has been embroiled in controversy since 2010 when at a public hearing, a group of residents claimed that Islam was not really a religion but a system that intended to overthrow the US Constitution and replace it with Sharia or Islamic religious law. The New York Times reports that a protest, followed by a counterprotest, drew nearly 800 people and a local Republican politician alleged the mosque building project was linked to Hamas.
The claim that Islam was not a religion but a system seeking to overthrow the US Constitution was dismissed and the building permit was granted. Residents then filed a suit in state court contesting it and secured a ruling that overturned the approval to build the mosque on the grounds that the county did not give adequate public notice of the hearing. MSNBC reports that although the county had advertised the meeting as it routinely does other meetings, the judge said the county should have given extra notice because the mosque construction was "an issue of major importance to citizens."
On Wednesday, US Attorney Jerry Martin argued the state court judge erred in that he created a separate "mosque standard" applicable only to Muslims. The judge, citing acts of vandalism, arson and a bomb threat against the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, said: "The Muslim community in Rutherford County has been under siege for the last two years. Now, after doing everything right, they are told that they can't move in."
The New York Times reports the leaders of the mosque said they did not want to take legal action, but they were forced to do so because of the Ramadan holiday. Ossama Bahloul, the center's Imam, said: “We have avoided litigation as long as we possibly could. But this lawsuit appeared to be the only way we could use our new mosque by the start of Ramadan.”
CNN reports, however, that the worshipers will have to wait at least a week before they can use the mosque. According to MSNBC, a county building codes inspector said on Thursday that the mosque would not be ready for use for at least two weeks. The official said septic facilities need to be installed and approval must be obtained from the state Department of Environment and Conservation, the fire marshall and other authorities.
According to building codes Director David Jones, who inspected the Center on Thursday, work needs to be done on the exterior of the mosque before it is ready for final inspection and approval.
CNN reports that the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro officials said in a written statement: "It is unfortunate that we cannot be in our building for the start of Ramadan tonight. However, it does look like we will get to enjoy most of Ramadan in our building, especially the breaking of the fast at the end of Ramadan, on Eid-ul-Fitr."
MSNBC, reports the congregation was represented by The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and local civil rights attorney George Barret.
According to USA Today, the Muslim congregation of 1,000 people currently meets in a cramped location of 2,250 square feet in a small office complex. The new 12,000 square feet mosque has long term plans to expand to 52,960 square feet.