Tennessee mosque sues to open

A federal judge on Wednesday will consider whether to force a Tennessee county to allow a Muslim congregation to begin worshipping in its newly built mosque, which has faced strong opposition from a group of residents.

The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro and its religious leader, Imam Ossama Bahloul, sued Rutherford County on Wednesday and asked the federal court for an emergency order to let worshippers into the building before the holy month of Ramadan starts at sundown on Thursday.

In May, a Rutherford County judge overturned the county’s approval of the mosque construction and this month he ordered the county not to issue an occupancy permit for the 12,000-square-foot building.

Plaintiffs in the original suit were a group of residents who made repeated claims that Islam was not a real religion and that local Muslims intended to overthrow the U.S. Constitution in favor of Islamic religious law.

The judge dismissed those claims but ruled for the plaintiffs in finding that the county didn’t give adequate public notice of the meeting that approved the mosque.

Although the county advertised that meeting in the same way it has advertised others, the judge said extra notice was needed because the mosque construction was “an issue of major importance to citizens.”

The congregation is being represented by The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and local civil rights attorney George Barrett. The suit filed in federal court in Nashville alleges violations of federal law and the constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and equal protection.

In court documents, the attorneys for the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro argue that the mosque is illegally being held to a higher standard than other similar houses of worship. They note that between 2000 and 2007, 20 Christian churches were approved in Rutherford County using the same public notice procedure as was used for the mosque.

“If ICM were a Christian church, it would have been granted a certificate of occupancy and would be worshipping in its new facility today,” a memorandum to the federal court reads. ” … 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.”

Mosque attorneys argue the issue is urgent because the congregation’s current 2,100-square-foot mosque is severely overcrowded, with worshippers regularly forced to stand outside in the parking lot, unable to hear the prayer services.

Mosque leaders have said the Islamic center, which has existed for 30 years, serves about 250 local families as well as about 500 students who attend nearby Middle Tennessee State University.

The new building has been under construction since shortly after it was approved in May 2010. Members requested a final inspection and certificate of occupancy on Monday, but the county denied their request, citing Corlew’s earlier ruling.

The suit claims that if worshippers are not allowed use of the new building, they will suffer a significant loss of First Amendment rights.

“Ramadan is the most holy month of the Muslim calendar, when religious observance and mosque attendance is at its highest,” the suit states. “Without access to the new mosque, many members of the community will be prevented from worshipping during Ramadan due to overcrowding.”

Besides asking a judge to allow mosque members to use their new building, the lawsuit also seeks an unspecified amount of damages and court costs.

Although Rutherford County officials have repeatedly defended the rights of mosque members, they are constrained by the chancery court’s order preventing them from issuing a certificate of occupancy for the new building. The county has filed a notice of appeal in the case, but that appeal is expected to drag on for months.

Associated Press, 18 July 2012