Supporters of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro's right to build had their say at Thursday's meeting of the Rutherford County Commission as opponents filed a lawsuit to stop it.
It was the first time voices of support were heard en masse at the Courthouse, some of which represent the very Muslim community who say they are being unfairly targeted.
"In the past five months, we have allowed those who hurt us all to achieve their goal and dividing this community and this nation," Lema Sbenaty told the commission. "We cannot let them succeed."
Sbenaty was born in Tennessee and lived in Murfreesboro since she was 1 year old and said she was just like everyone else with one exception: She's a Muslim.
Mosque opponent Kevin Fisher was scheduled to speak but had to leave due to health problems. A couple of hours before the commission meeting, Fisher filed a lawsuit against the commission in chancery court to stop construction of the Mosque.
"This case is about making sure that it's really a church and making sure the county commission and planning commission stop operating as puppets," Attorney Joe Brandon Jr. told the Murfreesboro Post. "It is a federal crime to fund terrorism, and at this point we are confident that we can show a direct connection between members of the ICM and Hamas."
The lawsuit filed by Fisher's attorney asked the court for an order preventing the county commission from taking any further steps to advance the approval of a site at 2700 Veals Rd. for the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro or any use of the site for a cemetery, park or school.
An amended complaint is being filed Friday by Brandon to remove the names of two plaintiffs who did not wish to be listed. Brandon explained it was an error on his part. Fisher is named with three other plaintiffs: James Estes, Lisa Moore and Henry Golczynski.
Fisher never took the podium to speak Thursday telling the Murfreesboro Post when he returned to the meeting he couldn't take what he was hearing.
"All I heard was this socialist garbage being spewed by the pro Mosque crowd," Fisher said. "It was too much. The things that they represent offend me. I walked out and went to talk to citizens."
What Fisher and opponents heard was a defense of the United States Constitution, local and state law and their Islamic neighbors. Most thanked the commission for upholding the rule of law and argued that extremists are the common enemy of all faiths.
"All of this is part of a general wave of Islamophobia," Jase Short told the commission. "These same political forces have subjected citizens who have stood up for civil rights and the civil rights of others with a good deal of slander."
Layla Hantouli said her community is united against extremists and gave first hand testimony to how her family is affected by Mosque opponents.
"Right now the only communication I'm getting is you are a terrorist," Hantouli said. "We're here to take a stand against extremism and we need you to do the same in defense of our community."
Thomas Moss, a member of Middle Tennesseans for Religious Freedom, charged opponents engaged in the very acts of religious intolerance they claim to fear.
"I know you are smart enough to realize that you are becoming the very thing that you fight against," Moss said. "As with Islam, a radical minority of residents have had an adverse affect on the majority."
Cynthia Joe Nelson, who has lived here since 1991, summed up the shame she and others said they feel over the way opponents have painted Murfreesboro.
"It has been sad to see this community so torn and filled with angry noise by a few people who are too frightened to get to know these folks," Nelson said. "I'm proud my church has reached out to the Islamic Center. They have reached back."
Only one opponent took to the podium to echo a fear expressed by some residents and outsiders that area Muslims would take over local government and force residents to worship Allah.
"This democratic council will have to be disbanded because it has to submit to the local Mosque, Imams or local regional Mulahs who interpret political islam without jury or appeal," Donald Wescott warned the commission.
Wescott is one of many residents who oppose the approved construction of an Islamic center to serve a community of Muslims that have lived here since the 1980s.
The 52,000 square feet facility was approved earlier this year by the county under a new state law that allows religious institutions to build whatever they want in residential neighborhoods as a "use of right."
Community anger followed the county's May approval under the Tennessee Religious Freedom Act of site plans for a Mosque to be built in a residential area off Veals Rd.
The new state law praised by conservatives at the time it passed goes above and beyond a similar federal law enacted in 2000 by forcing local governments to provide "clear and convincing evidence" of the government's interest when denying building plans of religious institutions in residential neighborhoods.
Local residents expressed their fear and anger at two past meetings of the Rutherford County Commission when area Muslims were granted permission to build a new Mosque. Some told commissioners they feared Muslims would try to kill them while others contended Muslims were here to replace local government with Sharia Law.
Opposition to the Mosque gained the attention of Televangelist Pat Robertson. In an August 19 airing of the 700 Club, the one-time failed Presidential candidate said Muslims could be bribing county government.
"I don't know whether anybody is getting a pay-off, but it's entirely possible," Robertson told his audience.
On August 28, someone burned excavating equipment where the Mosque is being built damaging the equipment. The incident also followed vandalism against the site's sign in January and June.
Fisher and opponents expressed confidence they will put a stop to planned construction of the Islamic Center. Fisher made a point to tell the Murfreesboro Post this wasn't about intolerance toward Muslims. Meanwhile, construction continues.