NASHVILLE (CN) – An Islamic mosque, vandalized during construction, claims Rutherford County won’t let it open, bowing to pressure from opponents who say its congregants are not protected by the First Amendment because Islam is not a religion. The United States sued the county in a related complaint.
The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro sued Rutherford County in Federal Court, and the federal government sued the county the same day, also in Federal Court.
The United States claims the county violated the mosque’s members’ religious rights by denying the occupancy permit for the completed mosque.
In its complaint, the Islamic Center (ICM) claims the county truckled to citizens who claimed, in court, that the county had “failed to determine whether Islam is a religion and whether ICM is a religious organization entitled to protection under the First Amendment.”
The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro holds religious services, provides religious education and community service. It serves 250 to 300 families and 400 to 500 Muslim students at Middle Tennessee State University.
In 2009, it decided to build a new facility to replace its 2,100 square-foot mosque, which is too small to accommodate all of its congregants.
“Each week, hundreds of men attempt to fit into a 1,200 square-foot room,” the mosque says in its complaint. “The room lacks sufficient ventilation or air-conditioning for the number of congregants in attendance. Due to the lack of space, women attending ICM use a small, converted garage and view the Imam on closed circuit television.
“As a result of the lack of space, many congregants have been forced to pray (which in Islam requires prostration) in the corridors, and some have had to stand in the parking lot for services, despite the fact that no sound is projected into the parking lot.” (Parentheses in complaint).
ICM says families with young children and elderly congregants stopped attending services because of the crowding and the lack of child-care facilities.
It says the old mosque has no space for a library, after-school programs, funeral rituals or holiday celebrations, and lacks adequate facilities for ritual washing, which is required before prayers.
So ICM applied for a permit to build a 52,000 square-foot facility, including a 12,000 square-foot mosque and center for interfaith activities, in a residential district in Rutherford County.
After the county approved the site plan in May 2010, ICM got a building permit.
But the Islamic Center says it faced many problems during planning and construction, including vandalism, bomb threats and anti-Muslim rallies.
“For example, shortly after purchasing the Veals Road property, ICM posted a sign at the property stating ‘Future Site of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro,'” the complaint states. “In January 2010, however, the sign was vandalized and the words ‘Not Welcome’ were painted on it.
“After ICM replaced the vandalized sign, on or about June 23, 2010, the second sign was also vandalized and broken in half.
“On July 14, 2010, several hundred opponents of the mosque held a rally in the public square in Murfreesboro. At least one protestor carried a sign that bore words to the effect of, ‘Mosque Leaders Support Killing Converts.’
“Construction at the Veals Road property began in August 2010. But on Aug. 28, 2010, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a large construction vehicle at the Veals Road construction site was intentionally set on fire.
“The Federal Bureau of Investigation has offered a $20,000 reward in connection with an investigation into the arson, and an investigation remains open, but the case remains unsolved.
“Since 2010, the mosque has received a number of offensive phone messages.
“For example, one offensive message said, ‘You need to leave American soil. You are not wanted here.’ Another said, ‘Your “religion” is a sham … My God says you will be crushed in the end …’ Another said, ‘The beginning of the end of Islam in America has begun.’
“On Sept. 5, 2011, ICM received a threatening, expletive-ridden phone call stating that a bomb would be placed at ICM on September 11, 2011. ICM canceled activities for that weekend, and many members were deterred from showing up for weekly prayer services.”
ICM says it had trouble finding contractors to work on the mosque and had to pay much more than anticipated for construction services.
The Islamic Center also hired a security guard and installed a security system in its building, according to the complaint.
Despite public opposition, ICM completed its new building this month.
But it says the county refused to inspect the building and issue a certificate of occupancy after a state court declared the county-approved site plan void.
That decision ended a 2010 lawsuit in which Rutherford County residents asked the court to stop construction of the mosque.
“The opposing residents argued that the county had violated their rights under the Due Process Clause of the United States and Tennessee Constitutions when the county allegedly failed to determine whether Islam is a religion and whether ICM is a religious organization entitled to protection under the First Amendment,” the complaint states.
“Lawyers for the opposing residents repeatedly compared ICM to Osama bin Laden, argued that Islam is not a religion, and maintained that Muslims are not entitled to protection under the First Amendment. These arguments were hurtful to ICM’s members, who consider Islam to be a religion and themselves to be religious people.”
The court ruled that the county had violated the Tennessee Open Meetings law by failing to provide adequate public notice of the meeting at which it approved ICM’s site plan, because the mosque plan was “an issue of major importance to citizens.”
The complaint adds: “This conclusion was very hurtful to ICM and its members because it treated them as subjects of special suspicion and worse treatment than every other house of worship in Rutherford County.”
ICM claims the county has approved 20 other site plans for Christian churches, following the same procedures, and none of them were contested.
The court in June denied residents’ request to stop construction of the mosque, but it barred the county from issuing a certificate of occupancy for the building.
In its complaint, the United States says the county provided sufficient notice of the ICM site meeting in a local newspaper, both in print and online.
It claims that the decision not to let the Islamic Center occupy its mosque discriminates against ICM based on religion, and violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.
“The record reflects that the plaintiffs’ argument as to why the construction of the mosque was ‘a matter of great public importance’ was based on animus by some members of the public against the religion of Islam and not on religion-neutral concerns about the project itself,” the government says in its complaint.
It says the Islamic Center’s members have the right to celebrate Ramadan, which starts on July 20, in their new mosque.
“Occupancy by Ramadan in 2010 has long been a goal of the Islamic Center,” the government’s complaint states. “The contract with the general contractor specifically stated that the project must be completed by Ramadan. The Imam made a promise to the youth of the Islamic Center last year that despite the controversy, the crimes of arson, threats, and vandalism against them, that religious freedom and equality would prevail and that they would be able to worship in their new mosque for Ramadan this year.”
ICM says “the county has subjected plaintiffs to different legal treatment based on the hostility of neighbors.”
It seeks damages for constitutional violations and discrimination, and wants the county to let it occupy and use the mosque.
ICM is represented by George Barrett with Barrett Johnston of Nashville and The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, of Washington D.C.
Co-plaintiff with ICM in its complaint is the mosque’s imam, Ossama Bahloul.