NASHVILLE (AP) — The people most affected by a long-running court battle to stop construction of a Rutherford County mosque have no say in the case and the most to lose as it drags on.
The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro already is too small to handle the worshippers who spill into the parking lot during prayer services. And the Ramadan holiday beginning at the end of July will swell the crowd, making the need for a new space more urgent.
Mosque members had hoped to be in their new building for Ramadan, but a protracted court battle between mosque opponents and the county will continue right through the Muslim holy month.
As it stands, a local judge has barred the county from issuing a certificate of occupancy for the new building. Mosque members have never been a party to the lawsuit, and are relying on the county to try to get that decision overturned. If that doesn’t happen quickly, though, a mosque leader says they may have no choice but to take legal action.
The court case began nearly two years ago when mosque opponents sued county officials, claiming that they did not provide proper public notice of the meeting where the mosque was approved.
Late last month, a judge ruled in their favor and issued the injunction that could prevent mosque members from occupying the new space for months.
The county could remedy the situation by holding a repeat meeting in which the Planning Commission votes again to approve the mosque, this time with more notice of the meeting. Thus far, they have declined to do so.
While mosque members may be reluctant to embroil themselves in the legal controversy, Eric Rassbach, an attorney with The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said it is the only way they can protect their constitutional rights.
“It doesn’t make sense to let the government represent you, because their interests are different than yours,” he said.
Up until now, mosque members largely have been able to function as if the suit were not happening. They are not parties to the lawsuit, have rarely attended court hearings and have not been called to testify. Meanwhile, construction of their new 12,000-square-foot building has continued and should be completed within weeks.
Essam Fathy, Islamic center board chairman, said mosque members are waiting to see what action the judge takes at a Monday hearing before deciding on any legal action. But they don’t intend to wait months for the appeals process before occupying the building.
“If we are cornered, the least we can do is defend ourselves,” Fathy said. “We’re not asking for anything illegal. We’re asking for our constitutional rights like every other citizen.”
The judge ruled that county officials should have taken extra steps to advertise the meeting where the mosque was approved because of the widespread public interest in the plan. In its appeal, the county questions the constitutionality of treating the mosque differently from other projects.
Fathy said the upcoming Ramadan holiday gives the situation urgency. It’s not just that the current building is crowded. Even packed in tightly, there are many people who simply cannot get inside to participate in the prayer services.
There are something like 500 Muslim foreign students attending Middle Tennessee State University who worship at the mosque, as well as about 250 local families, he said.
“People pray in the parking lot,” Fathy said. “We open the door, but of course there is no loudspeaker, so they sit in the parking lot and don’t hear anything.”
Rassbach said that the Islamic center’s situation should worry anyone concerned about religious liberty.
“You may not care about this specific mosque, but no religion is an island,” he said. “What the government can do to this mosque, it can do to any church or synagogue in the nation.”