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.

Muslim group’s TN forum with feds disrupted by heckling

MANCHESTER — Hundreds of people turned out at the Manchester Convention Center Tuesday evening for an event billed as a discussion of public discourse in a diverse society, with a particular focus on the Muslim religion.

People were turned away at the door because the facility was too full. Some grew angry and started hurling terms such as “communist,” “socialist” and “Muslim” at law enforcement officials.

The indoor event, sponsored by the American Muslim Advisory Council, was countered by a large group of protesters, both outside and inside the facility. Some who made it in before admission was cut off continuously interrupted the speakers.

The interruptions were so intense at times that attendee Elaine Smith, 55, of Bedford County, said she was afraid of other audience members.

During the keynote speech given by Bill Killian, U.S. Attorney of the Eastern District of Tennessee, audience members continually interrupted, making it difficult to understand what was said. Killian brought a PowerPoint presentation that covered the First and 14th amendments and what constitutes a hate crime, among other things. He read the First Amendment verbatim, between interruptions.

Moore said the FBI was continually working to build relationships with worshippers of Islam and other faiths because “they are essential” to keeping the country safe.