MURFREESBORO, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Supreme Court has denied an appeal by opponents of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro and affirmed an appellate ruling in favor of the Rutherford County Planning Commission.
“This action signifies the end of the appeal,” said Michael W. Catalano, the clerk for the Tennessee Appellate Court Clerk’s Office.
Catalano, who oversees the dockets and manages cases pending before the Supreme Court and other state circuits, sent a letter Thursday on behalf of the justices informing all those involved in the lawsuit that the application for appeal has been denied – the case can finally be put to rest following more than three years of legal battles.
“The Appellate Court Clerk’s Office has issued the (Tennessee) Court of Appeals mandate in its entirety to the (Rutherford County Chancery) Court clerk in the above-styled appeal,” Catalano said, referring to the fact that the Supreme Court wholeheartedly agrees with the Appeals Court decision that was announced in June.
Although the fallout and repercussions from the case are still unknown, the Supreme Court decision comes only a week after Chancellor Robert Corlew III, the Rutherford County judge who oversaw the lawsuit, announced he was retiring from the bench.
What is known is that the Appeals Court decision now stands as the law of the land regarding public notices in Tennessee.
Corlew, as well as lawyers who represent both sides of the case, could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon when the decision was made public.
Mosque opponents filed the Supreme Court appeal earlier in July after the Tennessee Court of Appeals overturned Corlew’s decision and ruled the Planning Commission did provide adequate public notice prior to approving construction of the Islamic Center, which opened in August 2012 after the U.S. Department of Justice intervened in the case.
“We have concluded that the (Chancery) Court erred in finding the notice provided to be inadequate under the Open Meetings Act,” said Judge Andy D. Bennett, who authored the opinion for the Appeals Court.
“In view of the totality of the circumstances, the notice of the meeting comports with the provisions of the act,” said Bennett, who has served on the Appeals Court for six years. “The notice provided the public with a reasonable opportunity to be present at the meeting. In fact, according to the minutes of the meeting, members of the media and the public were in attendance.”
In contrast, Corlew has contended the Planning Commission failed to properly inform residents because a public notice published May 2, 2010, in The Murfreesboro Post was insufficient.
In his July 2012 ruling, Corlew rationalized his decision by saying Islamic Center opponents argued “persuasively that the issue before us was in fact a matter of great public importance and a matter of tremendous public interest.”
As such, he ruled the Planning Commission should have utilized multiple media outlets, which is not required by law, to inform residents about the Islamic Center proposal to build a mosque off Bradyville Pike in Murfreesboro.
He also said an agenda detailing what items would be considered at the May 24, 2010, meeting should have been included in the public notice.
According to the Appeals Court, however, both reasons behind his decision were flawed because Tennessee law does not require either heightened requirement for a regularly scheduled meeting involving site plan proposals, which do not involve rezoning.
“Such efforts to increase the dissemination of information do not mean that (Rutherford) County was required to do so under the act,” Bennett said, referring to the idea that a government must use more than one medium to notify the public about routine operations.
As for calling for an agenda to be included in the public notice, the judges did not mince words.
“Had the legislature intended to require notice of the agenda for every meeting, whether regular or special, it could have easily said so at any time during the last 39 years (since the Open Meetings Act was passed),” Bennett said in his footnotes as part of the opinion.
The mandate by the Supreme Court is a victory for the newspaper and Rutherford County government, which has argued it followed the law as it is currently written.
By sticking by the Appeals Court, the Supreme Court also supported the notion that Corlew failed to consider all of the evidence involving The Post, which Islamic Center opponents have argued was not a proper medium because, at the time, it was not a newspaper of general circulation.
Under Tennessee law, a newspaper of general circulation must be published at least once a week, intended for circulation among the general public, and contains matters of general interest – criteria that The Post has met since it was launched in October 2006.
Specifically, the judges said they disagreed with his assertion that “few opportunities existed for those who lived near the proposed site to receive a copy” of The Post because it did not offer home delivery.
“The evidence also showed, however, that the newspaper was published weekly, was intended for circulation to the general public, and contained matters of general interest,” Bennett said, noting more than 21,000 copies were distributed throughout Rutherford County in May 2010.
“This was the customary location for (public) notices, and any interested person could obtain a copy at a distribution rack or on its website,” he added.
Based on all of these facts, he said, the Appeals Court has concluded that the “publication of the notice in The Post was sufficient.”