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Tennessee mosque work continues after judge voids building permit

Mark Humphrey / AP

The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro is under construction in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

Updated at 7:30 p.m. ET: Construction work continued on a Murfreesboro, Tenn., mosque Wednesday despite a judge’s ruling a day earlier voiding building permits for the controversial project.

Chancellor Robert Corlew III of the 16th District Chancery Court ruled that construction must cease because not enough notice was given about a May 24, 2010, public meeting in which Rutherford County planning commissioners approved the site plan for the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro.

"This is Sharia law," Joe Brandon, plaintiffs’ attorney, said of construction continuing without a valid permit. "They’re thumbing their nose at the state of Tennessee."

Brandon lodged an order Wednesday at the Chancery Court asking that construction at the mosque be stopped completely.

The county had not issued a stop work order by the end of Wednesday, Brandon said.

"If it were you or I, they'd be out there and stop us," Brandon charged. "The county attorney needs to man up and tell them to stop."

Corlew ruled in favor of Kevin Fisher and other Rutherford County residents who sued the Planning Commission. The mosque is free to reapply for permits, he said.

"It's a good day for the plaintiffs; I'm very pleased with the outcome," plaintiff Henry Golcyznky said, adding he was somewhat surprised Corlew ruled in the plaintiffs' favor.

See the original story on NBC Station WSMV of Nashville, Tenn.

"There should have been public notice. People should have been allowed to come in and express or at least understand what was going on," Golcyznky said.

A public notice about the 2010 Planning Commission meeting, in which no public hearing was required over the mosque’s site plan, was published in the twice-weekly Murfreesboro Post, which has a contract to handle Rutherford County’s legal advertising. 

Islamic Center members said they hoped to complete the first phase of the mosque by Ramadan, a month-long Muslim holiday beginning this year on July 20, based on the Islamic lunar calendar.

"This decision comes at a crucial time, because we were at a point about to celebrate the opening of our center. which we were hoping to happen, probably within two to three months. It's a sad day in our community," said mosque member Saleh Sbenaty.

Construction of the $2 million, 52,000-square-foot mosque is well under way, with the first phase, a 12,000-square-foot building, nearly complete.

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The mosque was not a party in the lawsuit.

"We really don't know the implications of the ruling that the judge came with. We're still in contact with our legal counsel. ... We're going to see what the next step is going to be," Sbenaty said

If the mosque officials must reapply for permits, then they will, he said.

A construction crew was at the mosque site Wednesday.

 "The decision of the court will not be final at the earliest until 30 days after a court order is filed, county attorney Jim Cope said. "Therefore, things will remain in a fluid state during the next several weeks until the parties, ICM, and the court address all the legal issues that remain pending and unresolved."

The judge's ruling drew nationwide attention.

Council on American-Islamic Relations called for the Department of Justice to intervene in the case if the county doesn't issue new building permits to "protect the religious rights of Tennessee Muslims."

CAIR said the judge’s ruling “used phrases and reasoning which could be viewed as indicating that a higher degree of public notice is required for issues related to Tennessee Muslims.”

Earlier story at NBC station WSMV of Nashville, Tenn.

"American Muslim constitutional rights should not be diminished merely because anti-Muslim bigots are able to manufacture a controversy about what would otherwise be normal religious activities," said CAIR attorney Gadeir Abbas.

"If the Rutherford County Planning Commission does not immediately issue new permits for the mosque, we urge the Department of Justice to intervene in this case to support the religious rights of Tennessee Muslims."

Mosque opponents have fought construction for two years, arguing that Islam is not a real religion deserving of First Amendment protections and that the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro has terrorist ties.

The judge dismissed those allegations but held the trial on the narrower claim that the public meeting law was violated.

Larry Flowers is a reporter at NBC station WSMV of Nashville, Tenn.

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