Worshipers leave the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro after midday prayers… (Mark Humphrey / Associated…)
Muslims in central Tennessee moved into their newly built mosque Friday with a week left to go in the holy month of Ramadan, capping a multi-year struggle that included vandalism, threats and lawsuits from local residents.
A temporary occupancy permit issued Tuesday put a stay – for the time being – to a legal dispute that began in 2010. That's when the Islamic community broke ground on a 12,000-square-foot mosque, and local residents sued.
Moving in was a milestone for the Islamic community, but the day was tinged with worry over religious freedom, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. On Sunday, six Sikhs were killed when a gunman opened fire at a Wisconsin gurdwara. On Monday, a mosque in southwestern Missouri burned to the ground.
“We now celebrate this ruling — not as a victory for our congregation, nor as a victory for American Muslims — but as a victory for the American Constitution,” said Dr. Ossama Bahloul, the imam of the Islamic Center, in a statement. “Part of what makes our nation great is that we protect religious freedom for all: Muslim, Christian, Jew, and others.”
On Thursday, 13 Rutherford County residents filed a motion in U.S. District Court to void the temporary occupancy permit and a permanent move-in. The motion would insert the residents as a third party in the lawsuit.
A judge will decide whether the so-called defendant intervenors will be able to participate and whether the judgment they seek is legal. Joe M. Brandon Jr., an attorney representing the 13 residents, did not return a phone call seeking comment Friday.
“Further court rulings will vindicate the mosque’s right to worship in peace,” said Lori Windham, a lawyer for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, co-representing the mosque.
The Islamic community has been in Murfreesboro for 30 years and had outgrown its previous mosque, which had no ventilation or air-conditioning. The congregation bought land for a new mosque just outside town, and a local planning commission unanimously approved a building permit.
After the congregation broke ground on the mosque in 2010, problems surfaced. A vehicle caught fire. Someone scrawled “Not welcome” in violet spray paint on a construction site sign. A bomb threat in 2011 resulted in the federal indictment of Javier Alan Correa, 24, who awaits trial.
Then, opponents sued to block the mosque. They contended that the planning commission did not follow proper procedure in approving the mosque’s permits – and that Islam was not a real religion, so its devotees had no 1st Amendment right to religious freedom.
In the motion filed Wednesday, Brandon reiterated that point, writing that whether Islam is a real religion is “unresolved as a matter of law.”
In June, a local judge of the Chancery Court voided the mosque’s building permits and blocked an occupancy inspection. A federal judge ordered Rutherford County to immediately finish the inspection process. The U.S. Department of Justice filed a separate suit siding with mosque supporters.