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Tennessee county loses battle over newly built mosque

AP Photo/Erik Schelzig

A worker walks out of a mosque being built in Murfreesboro, Tenn., on June 21, 2012. The mosque has been the subject of a lawsuit since 2010.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A federal judge has ruled that Muslims in a Tennessee congregation have a right to occupy their newly built mosque, overruling a county judge's order that was keeping them out.

The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro sued Rutherford County on Wednesday and U.S. District Judge Todd Campbell granted the mosque an emergency order to let worshippers into the building before the holy month of Ramadan starts at sundown Thursday. Federal prosecutors also filed a similar lawsuit.

But a county building codes inspector announced Thursday the mosque would not be ready for occupancy for at least two weeks, reported Tennessean.com.

Septic facilities need to be installed, and approval needs to be obtained from the state Department of Environment and Conservation, the fire marshal, and other entities, said Rutherford County Building Codes Director David Jones after he inspected the Islamic Center on Thursday morning. There's also exterior work that needs to be done before the building is ready for its final inspection, he said.

The future of the mosque had been in question since May, when a local judge overturned the county's approval of the mosque construction. This month, he ordered the county not to issue an occupancy permit for the 12,000-square-foot building.

In past years, community members have gathered for Eid-al-Fitr -- the breaking of the fast for Ramadan -- in the parking lot of the rented worship space that they outgrew, the Tennessean.com reported. 

The contentious fight over the mosque stems from a 2010 lawsuit filed by a group of residents who made repeated claims that Islam was not a real religion and that local Muslims intended to overthrow the U.S. Constitution in favor of Islamic religious law.

Those claims were dismissed, but opponents won with a ruling that overturned the approval to build the mosque on the grounds that county didn't give adequate public notice of the meeting.

Previously on this story: Mosque work continues after judge voids building permit

Although the county advertised that meeting in the same way it has advertised others, the judge said extra notice was needed because the mosque construction was "an issue of major importance to citizens."

'The Muslim community ... has been under siege'
In court Wednesday, U.S. Attorney Jerry Martin said the chancery court judge, in essence, created a separate "mosque standard" applicable only to someone who wants to build a mosque.

Citing acts of vandalism, arson and a bomb threat against the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, Martin said, "The Muslim community in Rutherford County has been under siege for the last two years. Now, after doing everything right, they are told that they can't move in."

Martin asked the federal judge to fulfill a promise made by the congregation's religious leader, Imam Ossama Bahloul, to the children of the congregation that justice would be done and they would be allowed to worship in their new space.

The congregation is being represented by The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and local civil rights attorney George Barrett. The lawsuit filed in federal court in Nashville alleges violations of federal law and the constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and equal protection.

"If ICM were a Christian church, it would have been granted a certificate of occupancy and would be worshipping in its new facility today," a memorandum to the federal court reads, citing 20 instances of Christian churches that have been allowed to build since 2000.  "... The discriminatory treatment of the mosque also sends a powerful message to the Muslim community that they are second-class citizens, not worthy of the same rights or protection as Christian churches."

Attorneys for Rutherford County did not oppose the temporary restraining order. County attorneys have argued in chancery court hearings that treating the mosque differently from other applicants was discriminatory and a violation of their rights.

County Attorney Jim Cope said after the hearing that he felt vindicated by Campbell's ruling.

Mosque leader Bahloul said he had been reluctant to involve the mosque in the lawsuit but felt he had no choice after the certificate of occupancy was refused.

He said Campbell's ruling means a lot to Muslims in Tennessee and their supporters.

"We are here to celebrate the freedom of religion and that the concept of liberty is a fact existing in this nation," he said, reported WBIR.com in Tennessee. "The winner today is not an individual, the winner today is our nation and the fact that our Constitution prevailed."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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