Murfreesboro, TN [Islamic Center]
The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro (ICM) was established in the 1980s for a burgeoning Muslim American community located 35 miles southeast of Nashville, TN. By 2009, they had outgrown their smaller prayer space in southwestern Murfreesboro and purchased 15 acres of land in the eastern section of town. Construction for the new center, which would include a12,000 square-foot mosque, a cemetery, social space, a school as well as a swimming pool and gymnasium, began the following year in 2010. Although the project received unanimous approval from the county’s planning commission, a conservative minority in the community and leaders from ultra-conservative organizations mobilized public opposition against the project.
On May 24, 2010, the Rutherford County Planning Commission approved plans for the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro to be constructed on Veals Road. However, in the wake of a Rutherford County Commission town hall hosted in June 17, 2010 to accommodate citizens’ concerns about the project, the proposed mosque site was met with fierce dissent from across the nation, as Murfreesboro was thrust into the national spotlight alongside the Park 51 project, a New York City prayer center that opponents deemed to be too close to the site of the September 11, 2001 tragedy. However, the Rutherford County Planning Commission affirmed its approval for the mosque in early August 2010, with construction crews breaking ground on August 20, 2010.
Over the next four years ICM was subject to intimidation and threats, incidents of arson and vandalism, public statements by politicians, and a prolonged legal campaign that, among others, advanced the claim that the Muslim community did not deserve First Amendment protections because Islam is not a religion. Opponents included both local groups and leaders from ultra-conservative organizations such as Proclaiming Justice to the Nation. Mobilization in support of the Muslim community included student groups from the Middle Tennessee State University as well as national organizations such as the ACLU and SPLC.
The legal campaign against the center started in September 2010 with opponents seeking an injunction in Rutherford County Chancery Court to halt construction. In addition to claiming the county had violated open meeting laws, the lawsuit (10CV-1443) centrally alleged that Islam was not a religion and that the Muslim community therefore was not entitled First Amendment protections—an argument which the attorney for the opposition, Joe Brandon, sought to make repeatedly during the hearing portion of the trial. Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy, whom the Southern Poverty Law Center lists as “one of America’s most notorious Islamophobes,” was called by the opposition as an expert witness. Legal support for ICM came from the Interfaith Committee on Mosques and from the Department of Justice which issued an amicus brief asserting that the U.S. throughout its history had acknowledged that Islam is a religion entitled to constitutional protection. Ultimately, the state court dismissed the opposition’s charges except for the public-notice claim. This allowed opponents to file a subsequent claim.
The subsequent lawsuit against the project centered solely on the charge that the county had failed to provide adequate public notice about the mosque. Taking place in the shadow of increased public mobilization in Tennessee around an anti-Sharia bill, the trial ended with the state court finding on May 29, 2012 that the county had failed to offer the public sufficient opportunity for public input. Although the county had followed regular procedure, the court held that the project required a heightened notice requirement and special handling by the county because of the significant concerns it caused among residents. Following his finding, County Judge Robert E. Corlew III ruled that the county could not grant an occupancy permit to the mosque.
In response to the requirement that the county withhold the occupancy permit, ICM and the DOJ file to separate lawsuits against the county. With the support of the Becket fund, ICM sued the county for violation of its religious freedom and equal treatment under RLUIPA. More than 100 faith leaders signed an open letter in support of ICM’s religious freedom and equal treatment claims. In a separate lawsuit (United States v. Rutherford County, Tennessee [(M.D. Tenn.]), the DOJ made similar RLUIPA claims against the county and filed a motion for a temporary restraining order, which the court granted the same day. The order enjoined the county to issue a temporary occupancy permit allowing ICM to use its new mosque for the Ramadan celebrations in early August 2012.
At the ICM’s grand opening in November 2012, Attorney General Thomas Perez delivered remarks that touched upon the DOJ’s commitment to securing religious freedom rights for Muslim Americans. Despite strong local and national support and although all pending legal cases were finally dismissed in July 2014 after the U.S. Supreme Court had refused to hear the opposition’s appeal, ICM has continued to experience ongoing harassment and obstruction.