Federal Judge Clears Way For New Tennessee Mosque to Open For Ramadan
The Islamic Center has been vandalized multiple times and a county judge blocked its expansion
CNN Wire Staff
July 19, 2012(CNN) -- A federal judge ordered a Tennessee county to conduct a final inspection of a new mosque, clearing the way for worshippers to possibly begin using the building in time for the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on Thursday.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Todd J. Campbell is the latest development in a two-year battle over the opening of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, near Nashville, that has been marked by legal challenges and anti-Muslim sentiment.
"If the building complies with applicable codes and regulations, the County shall issue, on or before July 19, 2012, the certificate of occupancy," Campbell wrote Wednesday in his order granting a temporary restraining order against the county.
Campbell's ruling effectively set aside a ruling by a county judge in June that reversed a planning commission's approval of the Islamic Center's expansion because of what he said was insufficient public notice.
Attorneys for the county have said it followed the normal practice of publishing notice of the hearing in the local newspaper, but the judge said more should have been done because the mosque was "an issue of major importance to citizens."
The U.S. Justice Department and the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro filed separate lawsuits this week, arguing that Rutherford County officials violated federal laws when they denied requests for a final inspection and certificate of occupancy for the mosque.
The Justice Department is accusing Rutherford County of violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 by holding the mosque to a different standard than other religious institutions built in the county. The Islamic Center argued that it was being unconstitutionally blocked "merely because local anti-Islamic protests have made the mosque controversial."
The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro has existed for more than a decade, but the fight erupted in 2010 when planning commissioners approved an expansion project.
The construction site had been vandalized multiple times, including by an arson attack in 2010, and federal authorities have charged a Texas man with calling in a bomb threat to the center before last year's anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.
"Not welcome" was spray-painted by vandals on a sign announcing the construction of the project.
Four county residents filed suit to block the mosque in September 2010, arguing it posed a "risk of terrorism generated by proselytizing for Islam and inciting the practices of Sharia law" and that planning commissioners violated their due process rights. They also demanded the judge bar any approval until the Islamic center showed that it was not interested in "the overthrow of the American system of government, laws and freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution."
While those lawsuits were dismissed, another challenging the county's public notice of a hearing on the mosque succeeded in court.
On Wednesday, Campbell ruled that the Justice Department had "demonstrated that the mosque is necessary to accommodate the number of worshipers, especially during the holy season of Ramadan."
If the building does not comply with inspection requirements, Campbell ordered Rutherford County to immediately notify the Islamic Center of any deficiencies and "promptly re-inspect the building" after it informs the county it has corrected the problems.
Imam Ossama Bahloul said in a statement that the center was "delighted by the judge's decision."
"We look forward to celebrating Ramadan with our neighbors," he said.
Sally Wall, a critic of the decision to approve the mosque, said last month on CNN's "AC360" that she was opposed because there was no due process.
"It's not a matter of Islamaphobia with me," she said. "The county government is supposed to operate in a particular way .... People who live in an area where a mosque or anything else is going to be built are supposed to have the right to say something about it."
Kevin Fisher, who is also opposed the mosque, told CNN affiliate WZTV on Wednesday that the issue was never about someone's right to worship but rather about whether the planning commission gave proper public notice.
"I do believe in our system. I believe in due process," he said. "You have to respect the system, even if you disagree sometimes with the decision it makes."
CNN's Joe Sutton and Carol Cratty contributed to this report.