In Tenn. mosque fight, religious freedom trumps Islamophobia

June 19, 2014

A Davidson County judge Thursday upheld a decision by the Rutherford County Board of Zoning Appeals allowing burials at the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro site.

Senior Judge Paul Summers, who heard the matter after all local judges recused themselves, dismissed a case filed by a group of residents opposed to the county-approved cemetery just off Veals Road at Bradyville Pike.

“The Rutherford County Board of Zoning Appeals did not act illegally, arbitrarily, or capriciously by approving the special use exception permit for the cemetery,” the judge concluded.

The judge found that the petitioners, led by Bonnie Golczynski, showed “no distinct and palpable injury” and, therefore, had no standing.

Summers also ruled that the BZA complied with adequate notice requirements for the Open Meetings Act for December 2013 and January 2014 meetings. He concluded that a special use permit issued for the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro is valid and denied the petitioner’s request for the BZA to rehear the matter.

In addition, Summers dismissed all other claims of the petitioners and assessed them court costs.

Opponents contended, among other things, that the cemetery site is too close to nearby homes and sits in a low-lying area prone to flooding. They also say it will create extra traffic congestion in the area.

Lou Ann Zelenik, a spokeswoman for the petitioners, said she researched five years of BZA decisions and found that the board had turned down other requests because of concern about flooding.

Initial planning commission approval in 2010 led to a protracted lawsuit in which mosque opponents challenged whether the county provided adequate public notice of the planning commission’s vote. Chancellor Robert Corlew ultimately ruled against the county, but a federal judge reversed his decision and allowed the ICM to occupy its building.

What’s heartening about this saga, however, is how local government officials stood up for religious freedom. Despite strong public opposition, members of the county planning commission voted to treat the building application of the Muslim community like applications from any other religious community.

That took courage. At the height of the conflict, political candidates and anti-Muslim activists worked hard to whip up opposition to the Islamic Center in Murfreesboro and beyond. Even televangelist Pat Robertson weighed in, suggesting that county officials may have fallen victim to Muslims’ “ability to bribe folks” and warning of a future Muslim takeover of the city council.

Opponents Of Islamic Center Of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Have Case Declined By U.S. Supreme Court

June 4, 2014

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — For years, opponents of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro vowed to take their legal fight to shut down the mosque all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

That fight ended Monday (June 2), when the nation’s highest court declined to hear their case.

The four-year conflict over construction of the mosque, which opened in 2012, brought national attention to this Bible Belt city of 112,000 about 30 miles south of Nashville.

Hundreds marched in protest after Rutherford County officials approved plans for the mosque in 2010. Televangelist Pat Robertson labeled the Islamic center a “mega mosque” and claimed Muslims were taking over Murfreesboro. An arsonist set fire to construction equipment on the building site.

Mosque opponents eventually filed a suit against Rutherford County, seeking to block construction of the worship space.

On the surface, the fight was over the minutiae of Tennessee’s sunshine, or public notice, laws. Mosque foes claimed local officials failed to give adequate notice of a meeting where plans for the mosque’s construction were approved.

But a thriving anti-Muslim movement in Tennessee fueled the fight. Mosque foes asserted that the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom did not apply to the mosque. In court, Joe Brandon Jr., a lawyer for mosque foes, said Islam is not a religion, and he argued that the mosque was a threat to the community.

Initially, a local judge ruled for the mosque foes and ordered a halt to mosque construction. But a federal court quickly overruled that decision, paving the way for the mosque to open in 2012. A state appeals court also later overturned the lower court decision.

Local Muslims, many of whom had worshipped in the community for years, found themselves having to defend their faith and their status as American citizens at the trial.

Members of the Islamic Center found help in local interfaith groups and other local leaders who rallied to their assistance. More than 100 local religious leaders signed a letter supporting the mosque.

Foes of the mosque haven’t given up yet. A group of plaintiffs recently filed suit to block local Muslims from building a cemetery on the mosque grounds.

According to the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, a ruling on the cemetery lawsuit is expected in mid-June.

Nashville rabbi offers Murfreesboro mosque trip on Yom Kippur

The rabbi of Nashville’s largest and longest-practicing synagogue used the most holy night of the Jewish year to invite his congregation on an unusual trip.

Going to the beleaguered mosque in Murfreesboro, he told them Friday, is part of Yom Kippur’s call to introspection.

“It’s the day that we look into our most honest selves and we have to wrestle with ourselves — not just to do what is the easy or comfortabl thing — but that which is courageous and filled with strength of conscience,” said Rabbi Mark Schiftan of The Temple-Congregation Ohabai Sholom.

The congregation will load up on buses Oct. 27 and travel to the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro for food and conversation, Schiftan said Saturday. While Jews and Muslims are often in conflict overseas, they’re both religious minorities in the U.S. The meeting gives both congregations the opportunity to ask questions and affirm their appreciation of the First Amendment right to practice their religions.

While Muslims have been meeting in Murfreesboro for decades, their newly opened mosque faced a number of tribulations, from burning of equipment on the construction site to a legal effort to prevent the building’s use.

Murfreesboro mosque leader says enough’s enough: Foes of the center in Murfreesboro file request to appeal

MURFREESBORO — An Islamic Center of Murfreesboro leader Tuesday questioned why plaintiffs opposed to government approval of mosque construction continue to appeal their case.

“We have already wasted enough energy and money on this issue,” said Saleh Sbenaty, a board member with the ICM and a 20-year professor at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. “We have been here for over 30 years. This is our home. We are productive members of our community. We have no other place to go.”

The plaintiffs hope the state’s top court will overrule a Tennessee Appeals Court decision in late May that supported the way the Rutherford County Regional Planning Commission approved plans for the ICM to construct a mosque on Veals Road, off Bradyville Pike.

Federal court intervenes

A federal court in Nashville intervened at the request of the U.S. Department of Justice and the ICM in July 2012 and determined that the local case violated the congregation’s First Amendment religious freedom and land-use rights. The federal court ruling allowed the congregation to move into its new mosque in August 2012, before the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, a time when Muslims are to fast during the day, worship at night, seek forgiveness and treat others well.

Tennessee May Deliberately Exclude Muslim Schools From New Voucher Program

Several conservative lawmakers in Tennessee are throwing the brakes on a fast-moving bill that would divert money away from public schools and towards vouchers for students to attend private or parochial schools. Republicans are taking a second look at the bill after the possibility arose that some Islamic schools could apply for the same funding made available to other religious schools.

The bill is a top priority for Republican Governor Bill Haslam, but several anti-religion lawmakers in the state senate, led by Sen. Bill Ketron who sponsored several anti-Islam bills in the last few years, are hoping to strip away the ability for any school that caters to Muslim children and their families to receive public dollars:

“This is an issue we must address,” state Sen. Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville) said. “I don’t know whether we can simply amend the bill in such a way that will fix the issue at this point.”

State Sen. Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro) and Tracy each expressed their concerns Friday over Senate Bill 0196, commonly called the “School Voucher Bill” and sponsored by fellow Sen. Mark Norris (R-Collierville), which would give parents of children attending failing public schools a voucher with which to enroll in a private school.

‘Love Muslim neighbors’ billboard coming to Murfreesboro

MURFREESBORO — A new message encouraging local residents to “Love Your Muslim Neighbors” is slated to go up on a South Church Street billboard by the end of the month.

The message is being placed on a billboard at 1015 S. Church St. by a self-described Washington, D.C.-based Christian advocacy and education organization called Sojourners, according to the group’s communications director, Tim King.

King said the organization decided on Murfreesboro as a location after several residents living within a 100-mile radius of the city took notice of the group’s message on a billboard in Joplin, Mo., and began calling for one to be placed here.

The billboard on which Sojourners placed its message in Joplin was just three blocks from where six people were shot dead outside a Sikh gurudwara.

King said the people who contacted the organization from the Murfreesboro area told Sojourners of the controversy that surrounded the building of a mosque here.

Tennessee mosque receives final occupancy permit, was subject of 2-year legal battle

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — A Tennessee mosque has received its final approval after a nearly two-year legal battle to prevent it from opening.

Islamic Center of Murfreesboro board chairman Essam Fathy said Thursday he was relieved and happy the mosque has its permanent occupancy permit.

Since construction was approved in May 2010, the mosque has been targeted by vandalism, arson and a bomb threat.

A group of neighbors sued Rutherford County to try to stop construction. Among other things, they claimed that local Muslims were compelled by their religion to try to overthrow the U.S. Constitution and replace it with Islamic law.

That claim was dismissed, but construction approvals were voided briefly for other reasons before a federal judge last month cleared the way for the mosque to open.

Ramadan in Murfreesboro

Id al-Fitr — the end of Ramadan’s monthlong fasting and sacrifice — has turned out to be an especially joyous holiday for the Islamic American community of Murfreesboro, Tenn. Hundreds of worshipers were finally able to occupy their new suburban mosque this month, prevailing in their constitutional right after a two-year assault of bigotry, persistent court challenges, arson and a bomb threat at the construction site.

The community’s religion became a heated issue when residents at a public hearing angrily maintained that Islam was not a religion and that the mosque was an outpost in a plot to undermine the Constitution with Shariah law. The ugly fervor quickly spread to the political arena, where an openly anti-Islamic candidate enjoyed hefty donations from a conservative Nashville businessman in a run for Congress.

To its credit, the Rutherford County government upheld the rights of the Muslim congregation and approved the new mosque. But a local judge stopped work on the mosque in May, bending to opponents in ordering local planning officials to reopen hearings because of the controversy stirred by opponents. Judge Todd Campbell of Federal District Court in Nashville put an end to this nonsense last month, ordering occupancy after federal officials filed a religious discrimination suit. With patience and dignity, the Islamic Americans of Murfreesboro learned the hard way the endless American lesson that constitutional rights don’t come guaranteed.

Anti-Sharia Activists Influencing Tennessee GOP

Thursday, August 09th, 2012, by Blake Farmer

It’s getting tougher to be a Republican in Tennessee while also fully accepting the practice of Islam.

 

An incumbent in the U.S. House found herself on the defensive after being called soft on Sharia law, and the governor has been forced to explain why he hired a Muslim as part of a growing public push to raise suspicions of Islam.

 

“By stopping this now, we’re going to save ourselves a lot of difficulty in the future,” says Lee Douglas, a dentist in Brentwood who sees what he calls an “infiltration” of Islam in federal and state government.

 

Douglas points to the appointment of Samar Ali to work in Tennessee’s economic development office. He and others drafted a resolution criticizing the governor and making a case that Islam is bent on world domination.

 

A version of the document has been signed by a growing list of county-level Republican executive committees, including the state’s wealthiest and arguably most influential GOP stronghold of Williamson County.

 

Douglas uses the term Sharia, laws outlined in Muslim holy books, almost interchangeably with the religion itself.

 

He says the government should be showing deference to the religion on which the country was founded – Christianity. Instead, Douglas sees the U.S. Justice Department going to bat for Muslims, who make up one percent of the state and the U.S. as a whole.

 

Federal courts intervened in a lawsuit that attempted to keep the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro from opening.

Tennessee Muslims feel blessed this Ramadan after federal court rules in their favor

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — The Muslim holy month of Ramadan is always a joyful time for believers, but a Tennessee congregation was feeling especially blessed this year as they worshipped Friday.
Opponents spent two years trying to halt construction of a new mosque for the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, but a federal judge ruled this week the congregation has a right to worship there as soon as the building is ready.
“Ramadan this year reaches us at a very special time for us as a community,” Imam Ossama Bahloul told the congregation at Friday prayers. “We have received the good news about the federal court not standing on our side, but standing on the side of the Constitution
Although there has been an Islamic center in Murfreesboro for 30 years, the new building brought vehement opposition, including a lawsuit, a large rally and even vandalism, arson and a bomb threat.
Opponents of the mosque, who used the issue to raise wider arguments against the faith of Islam, have not commented to The Associated Press on the federal ruling.
Joe Brandon Jr., an attorney for mosque opponents, told Murfreesboro newspaper The Daily News Journal that he is exploring options for legal action.