Four years and some $350,000 later, the argument over the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro appears to be over – at least the fight over public notice.
The U.S. Supreme Court refused this week to hear a case brought by local residents who contended, in part, that Rutherford County failed to provide adequate notice in 2010 for a regional planning commission meeting when the site plan for the mosque was to be considered. County planners approved the proposal, and 14 residents responded with a lawsuit to block the mosque from being constructed and occupied at its Veals Road site off Bradyville Pike.
Since then, Rutherford County legal fees totaling $351,623 have piled up, according to the county finance department.
Rutherford County Mayor Ernest Burgess said today he never felt the ICM’s building plan merited different treatment than any other construction project.
“We’re pleased that this has come to an end after four years of extended litigation,” Burgess said. “I’m hopeful that all of the parties that had differing opinions over this issue will now join together to make a concerted effort to make Rutherford County even a better place for all of our citizens to live and prosper.”
Chancellor Robert Corlew initially ruled in favor of mosque opponents in 2012, determining that the county violated the Tennessee Open Meetings act by failing to give proper notice. He said the county should hold another hearing and consider the matter again after giving proper notice. The county appealed the decision.
But before that was heard, the Becket Fund and the U.S. attorney general’s office filed a federal lawsuit contending that the ICM’s federal rights were being violated. A federal judge ruled in the mosque’s favor and overturned an order to stop work on the ICM and the building was occupied.
“This case was and is the Lord’s battle. We have done all we could do,” said attorney Joe Brandon, who represented plaintiffs in the case. He pointed out that in addition to the public notice issue, the plaintiffs’ case was based on terrorism and ICM connections to terrorism.
“We were successful on public notice until we got robbed by the Department of Justice,” Brandon said.
He contended that the Department of Justice approached the federal court with only a partial transcript of the Chancery Court trial in Rutherford County. The matter was then rushed through the federal court in an effort to allow the ICM to occupy the mosque in time for Ramadan, one of Islam’s most important religious observances.
Meanwhile, the county had taken the case to the state Court of Appeals, all while the federal court was considering it, Brandon noted.
A federal cause of action remains pending, but it appears to be moot based on the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the case, Brandon said.
Even with the Supreme Court’s decision in, Brandon called the matter “a total miscarriage of justice.”
Becket Fund attorney Luke Goodrich said today the Supreme Court hears only a small percentage of the cases brought to it, and this case had “no merit and no chance of being heard.”
“The Supreme Court only hears cases of federal law,” he said, noting the opposition to the mosque was based on the Tennessee Open Meetings Act, a state issue.
He pointed out that the Becket Fund and Department of Justice brought a separate lawsuit based on federal claims that the Chancery Court was violating the ICM’s rights by requiring extra notice.
“That’s actively discriminating against the mosque,” he said.
Decisions against the mosque violated the Equal Protection Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment, the Free Exercise Clause in the First Amendment and a federal statute protecting religious land use, he said.
The ICM congregation felt the matter should be based solely on religious freedom and the double standard it faced, Goodrich said. Plaintiffs disliked the ICM’s religious beliefs and used the Open Meetings Act as a method to go after the congregation, he said.
That opposition continues, Goodrich said, with a lawsuit filed against Rutherford County to overturn a Board of Zoning Appeals decision allowing the ICM to have a cemetery on its site.