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Federal judge sides with Tennessee mosque in time for Ramadan

July 18, 2012|By Laura J. Nelson
  • The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro in Tennessee is awaiting additional inspections.
The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro in Tennessee is awaiting additional… (Erik Schelzig / Associated…)

County officials in Tennessee must inspect a newly built mosque immediately, a federal judge ruled Wednesday, which could allow Muslims to begin worshipping there before Ramadan begins at sundown Thursday. 

Rutherford County must issue an occupancy permit for the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro before Thursday evening, provided that the mosque passes a building inspection, Chief Judge Todd Campbell of U.S. District Court in Nashville ruled. If the mosque does not pass, the judge wrote, the county must let mosque supporters fix any problems, then reinspect it. 

Mosque supporters went to federal court Wednesday seeking a temporary injunction to let worshipers in before Ramadan, a holy month of prayers, fasting and purification. The mosque’s occupancy permits had been stalled by a lawsuit from some of its neighbors.

The Justice Department filed a separate suit Wednesday, siding with mosque supporters.

“If the building complies with applicable codes and regulations, the county shall issue, on or before July 19, 2012, the certificate of occupancy for the mosque," Campbell wrote.

He said he was granting the injunction because harm to the Islamic center would be "irreparable" if worshipers could not use the mosque, while harm to the county would be minimal. 

The controversy began two years ago when the Islamic community in Murfreesboro started construction on the mosque just outside town. The local planning commission had unanimously approved the building permit. 

The congregation of 300 families had outgrown the mosque they'd used for 30 years, attorneys said. Men squeezed into a 1,200-square-foot room with poor ventilation. Women, who worship separately from men under Islamic law, watched the imam in a converted garage on closed-circuit TV.

But some neighbors objected to the new center, and harassment began. First came menacing phone calls. Then a construction vehicle caught fire. Someone scrawled “Not welcome” in violet spray paint on a coming-soon sign. A bomb threat in September 2011 resulted in the federal indictment of Javier Alan Correa, 24, who is awaiting trial. 

Opponents sued to block the mosque. Among their contentions: The planning commission did not follow proper procedure; Islam was not a real religion; and its devotees had no 1st Amendment right to religious freedom.

“It’s pretty clear what was going on,” Hannah Smith, a lawyer with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, told The Times. “They simply didn’t want this mosque in their town.”

Smith is representing the mosque, along with local civil rights attorney George Barrett.

Last month, a local judge of the Chancery Court voided the mosque’s building permits and blocked an occupancy inspection, ruling that the county should have given more notice of the public meeting where officials approved construction because of "tremendous public interest."

As Ramadan approached without a solution in sight, mosque supporters went to federal court, contending that the local judge's ruling violated the Constitution and federal law. In the last seven years, at least 20 churches had been constructed in Murfreesboro without any objection, mosque supporters said.

“They didn’t want to bring this litigation, but they were forced into it because it is the only way that they can get into their new mosque in time for Ramadan,” Smith said. “It’s unfortunate that they’ve been backed into this corner.”

County attorneys did not oppose Campbell’s order. Attorneys representing mosque opponents could not be reached for comment Wednesday night.

Campbell's temporary order will allow worship inside the mosque for 14 days. It is unclear what will happen after that.

In the longer term, the Islamic community’s attorneys have filed a complaint in U.S. District Court asking for a permanent injunction against the Chancery Court decision that blocked the occupancy permits.

Mosque supporters were ecstatic after Campbell's ruling.

“The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro is delighted by the judge’s decision,” Ossama Bahloul, imam of the Islamic center, said in a statement. “We look forward to celebrating Ramadan with our neighbors.”

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Follow Laura on Twitter. Email: laura.nelson@latimes.com.

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