U.S. judge backs Murfreesboro mosque

6:51 AM, Jul 19, 2012   |    comments
Attorney Luke Goodrich, left, and Ossama Bahloul, the mosque's imam, leave the courthouse after a judge ruled in favor of the Murfreesboro mosque. / Jae S. Lee / The Tennessean
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By Bobby Allyn, The Tennessean

A new mosque in Murfreesboro can open in time for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a federal judge affirmed on Wednesday.

U.S. District Judge Todd Campbell reached his decision hours after attorneys for the mosque and the U.S. Department of Justice sued Rutherford County. His action is the latest in two-year battle over whether the county properly advertised a planning meeting on mosque construction.

The ruling cites freedom of religion and overturns a recent chancery court order that barred the mosque from opening.

"We are here to celebrate the freedom of religion and that the concept of liberty is a fact existing in this nation," said Ossama Bahloul, the mosque's imam. "The winner today is not an individual, the winner today is our nation and the fact that our Constitution prevailed."

The regional planning commission advertised its May 24, 2010, meeting agenda, which included the mosque, in the Murfreesboro Post newspaper, the same place the county advertises all of its public events.

Mosque opponents alleged that didn't constitute adequate public notice given intense local interest in the mosque, and they filed suit against the county. But in court arguments, opponents made clear they also objected to the practice of Islam.

Their attorney, Joe Brandon, said he wasn't surprised that the U.S. attorney got involved and reiterated his view that public will was circumvented.

"You don't throw a lawsuit like this together overnight," he said. "So, clearly, it's something they've been planning for some time."

The chancery court ruling blocked county workers from inspecting and issuing a certificate of occupancy for the mosque, along Veals Road off Bradyville Pike, although Campbell's restraining order renders that ruling moot. The inspection process can continue on the 12,000-square-foot building, and mosque leaders hope the site will meet all its requirements to ensure the new space can be used for Ramadan, the monthlong period of daytime fasting that will begin at sundown today.

Mosque leaders were unsure if they would be able to occupy the site by the first day. In years past, much of their community spent services for Eid-al-Fitr, the breaking of the fast of Ramadan, in the parking lot of their rented worship space - one they outgrew years ago and sought to replace.

More legal action could follow to address the pain Muslims associated with the Islamic center have endured, said attorney Luke Goodrich of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, who represented mosque leaders in the suit.

'Under siege'

Goodrich told the judge the mosque has been "under siege the past two years," noting that a federal grand jury last month indicted a 24-year-old Texas man for making a bomb threat against it. No one has been arrested in an August 2010 arson involving construction equipment on the site.

County officials have remained in support of the mosque being treated like any other religious building. They have appealed the chancery court ruling, objecting to its assertion that the mosque should have a different public notice requirement than other buildings.

"We have maintained from the outset that federal law requires that the ICM (Islamic Center of Murfreesboro) be treated in the same manner as other religious uses, and the county has done just that," county Mayor Ernest Burgess said.

U.S. Attorney Jerry Martin said in court that chancery court judge established a "mosque standard," which created a set of rules that discriminated against Islamic institutions.

 The Daily News Journal contributed to this report.

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