A federal judge agreed on Wednesday that Muslims in Tennessee who have been trying for months to get a permit to use their new mosque should be allowed to worship there in time for Ramadan, which begins on Thursday.
The Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department and the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro filed separate lawsuits on Wednesday against Rutherford County, asking that the congregation be allowed to use its new center.
Judge Todd J. Campbell of Federal District Court in Nashville issued a temporary restraining order, which means that the congregation could be given permits by the time Ramadan begins at sundown on Thursday.
For two years, construction of the 12,000-square-foot center has been a heated issue in Murfreesboro, a city of 110,000 people about 30 miles from Nashville, raising concerns about anti-Muslim sentiment.
Vandals have spray-painted construction signs with the words “not welcome” and have set fire to construction equipment. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and other agencies are investigating the 2010 fire as a possible hate crime.
In June, the Justice Department indicted a Texas man it said had left threatening messages on the center’s telephone in which he claimed that a bomb would go off on Sept. 11.
At a heated public hearing over the center in 2010, residents testified that Islam was not a religion and that the center was part of a plot to replace the Constitution with Shariah law, a legal code based on Islam. A protest and a counterprotest drew nearly 800 people, and a local Republican candidate for Congress tried to link the center to Hamas.
Still, the building permit was granted. Opponents filed suit in state court contesting it, and they were handed a victory in June when Chancellor Robert E. Corlew III ruled that the Rutherford County Planning Commission had not given sufficient notice of the hearing. The mosque, he said, was causing such concern in the city that it required special handling by elected officials managing such projects.
Rutherford County officials have repeatedly defended the rights of the Muslims who built the mosque, but the county’s hands were tied by the judge’s ruling and the county thus became the target of the federal suit. Meanwhile, the county itself has appealed the state judge’s ruling, but that case is expected to stretch on for months.
The legal maneuvering on Wednesday was an effort to circumvent the ruling and the long wait for the appeal. Besides asking a judge to allow mosque members to use their building, the suit seeks an unspecified figure for damages and court costs.
The lawsuit asserts that Rutherford County illegally discriminated against the mosque by denying its members the right to practice their religion. The mosque was forced to comply with requirements different from those applied to a Christian church or other religious building because its members are Muslim, the lawsuit says, which violates the Constitution and a federal civil rights statute.
“What the judge did was wrong in that he held the mosque to a much higher standard than any other institution applying for a land-use permit in Rutherford County,” said Eric Rassbach, a lawyer with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit law firm that helped file the lawsuit on behalf of the mosque.
“This case is pretty bad in the sense that usually you get neighbors who come in and complain about noise, traffic and congestion even if there is an underlying issue like we don’t like Orthodox Jews or Buddhists in our midst,” he said. “Here it is just blatantly about not wanting Muslims.”
Although leaders of the center had said they did not want to take legal action, the pressure of the pending holiday prompted the action, they said.
“We have avoided litigation as long as we possibly could,” Ossama Bahloul, the center’s imam, said in a statement. “But this lawsuit appeared to be the only way we could use our new mosque by the start of Ramadan.”