MURFREESBORO, Tenn. -- If a federal judge had not overturned a partial injunction barring the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro from opening, Chancellor Robert Corlew III would have entirely halted completion of the mosque, according to court documents filed last week.
In court orders released Friday, Corlew said he was preparing to order officials with the Rutherford County Building Codes Department to immediately stop construction of the Islamic Center, located on Veals Road, “for the reason that the structure is being built without a valid site plan."
“However, this court (has) learned that a U.S. District Court has determined to accept jurisdiction with regard to those issues herein,” he said, “and under the doctrine of federal preemption, this court then finds that all matters at issue should be stayed indefinitely, pending the decisions of the federal court.”
For more than two years, opponents of the Islamic Center have fought in Rutherford County Chancery Court to prevent the mosque from coming to fruition.
In the most recent legal showdown, Islamic Center opponents won a civil lawsuit on the grounds that the Rutherford County Planning Commission’s public notice about the Islamic Center proposal published in the May 2, 2010, print edition of The Murfreesboro Post was insufficient because the county did not use all the media at its disposal, including its website and cable access channel.
Corlew rationalized his plans to halt construction, as well as the partial injunction preventing the issuance of an occupancy certificate, based on his previous ruling that the Planning Commission failed to provide adequate public notice before approving the project.
“The plaintiffs argue persuasively that the issue before us was in fact a matter of great public importance and a matter of tremendous public interest,” Corlew said, as part of his May 29 ruling on the public notice issue.
Given the “totality of the circumstances,” the Planning Commission should have utilized multiple media outlets, which is not required under current law, to inform residents about the Islamic Center proposal, Corlew said.
The Chancery Court orders were released two days after U.S. District Court Judge Todd Campbell strongly rebuked Corlew’s interpretation of the law.
After reviewing arguments presented during a July 18 emergency hearing in Nashville, Campbell issued a 14-day temporary restraining order requiring the Building Codes Department to begin the inspection process necessary to issue an occupancy certificate.
In less than 24 hours of the federal ruling, officials with the Building Codes Department conducted a preliminary inspection of the mosque. Director David Jones determined it would be an estimated two weeks before the occupancy certificate could be issued because some aspects of the construction project are incomplete.
Despite those construction delays due to recent weather, the Muslim community is relieved to know the project will be completed in the near future, said Saleh Sbenaty, an engineering professor at Middle Tennessee State University.
“Even though we cannot start Ramadan in the new facility, the congregation is very happy with this ruling,” said Sbenaty, who serves as one of the senior members of the Islamic Center. “We now have the opportunity to move into the new mosque during the month of Ramadan.”
Sbenaty said members of the Islamic Center are hopeful about the future, especially in light of the recent decision.
“We are very excited,” he said. “We are very thankful for everyone who has helped make this happen. We have a lot of supporters who we are grateful for their help. They helped us tremendously.”
Campbell announced his decision only hours after attorneys representing the U.S. Department of Justice and Islamic Center filed separate lawsuits over the partial injunction.
The Justice Department sued on the grounds that Rutherford County officials were being forced to violate the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, a federal law that prohibits discrimination in site plan proposals and zoning decisions.
“Our nation was founded on bedrock principles of religious liberty,” said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division. “The Justice Department will continue to vigorously enforce civil rights laws that protect religious freedom.”
In the lawsuit, U.S. attorneys said Corlew misconstrued his application of the Tennessee Open Meetings Act, saying the Planning Commission followed the law as it is currently written.
“Prior to holding a meeting on May 24, 2010, the Planning Commission advertised the meeting in the form of a notice published in The Murfreesboro Post, a newspaper of general circulation in Rutherford County,” according to the lawsuit.
As such, U.S. attorneys argued the Planning Commission informed Rutherford County residents in the “same manner it provided (public) notice for other religious and secular land-use applications.”
They also pointed out “the meeting was not, in fact, open to the public,” as opponents of the Islamic Center have argued since the controversy first erupted, noting site plan proposals are not required to follow rezoning regulations.
As part of his decision, Campbell agreed with the Justice Department, saying the partial injunction Corlew ordered was incorrectly issued based on a “heightened public notice requirement,” which caused undue harm to the “free exercise of religion without a compelling governmental interest.”
Equal treatment of citizens under the law and the full expression of religious interests are in the public interest, he said, adding any further delays would have caused irreparable harm to members of the Islamic Center.
“When a faith community follows the rules, as the Islamic Center has done in seeking to construct its place of worship,” said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, “it is impermissible to change the rules in a discriminatory way that prevents people of faith from exercising their fundamental right to worship.”