Groups reacted with dismay and delight Tuesday after a judge ruled the Rutherford County Planning Commission failed to provide adequate public notice prior to approving construction of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, noting the future now seems even more precarious.
Attorney Joe Brandon Jr. presents his case in April 28, 2012, on behalf of Islamic Center of Murfreesboro opponents in Rutherford County Chancery Court in Murfreesboro, Tenn. (TMP Photo/D. Gardonia)
Although Chancellor Robert Corlew III voided site plan approval for the Islamic Center, he stopped short of issuing an immediate injunction – leaving some involved in the lawsuit, as well as within the Muslim community, with more questions than answers.
“I am not sure what the next step will be,” said Saleh Sbenaty, a professor at Middle Tennessee State University, who is a member of the Islamic Center. “We need to take some time to think this through.”
Joe Brandon Jr., who represented opponents of the Islamic Center, warned there was no doubt the ruling means construction must stop.
“All actions have been voided from the beginning,” Brandon said. “They have to stop construction immediately. If they do not stop construction, we will (submit) an application for an injunction.”
Even though construction will likely stop temporarily, Corlew said the ruling does not prevent the Planning Commission from properly providing notice of another regularly scheduled meeting that could include reconsideration of the Islamic Center proposal.
County attorney Jim Cope said officials with the Rutherford County Commission are still reviewing the ruling, adding a decision has not yet been made about how the government would respond.
“There are a number of options and considerations to be reviewed,” said Cope, who represented the Planning Commission in the lawsuit. “We will meet with the appropriate county officials to discuss those alternatives in the days ahead and take the course of action deemed most appropriate.”
Islamic Center opponents sued the Planning Commission on the grounds a public notice that was published in the May 2, 2010, print edition of The Murfreesboro Post was insufficient.
Corlew reasoned his decision by saying, “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.”
He acknowledged the Tennessee Opening Meetings Act instructs the government to give adequate public notice before a meeting, but it does not specify how to meet those requirements.
“Ironically, the law in Tennessee provides relatively few guidelines to be used in the determination as to whether the advertisement for a public meeting is adequate,” he said. “Public policy is generally not determined by trial courts. Nonetheless, it has fallen on the duty of this court to establish – at least initially and until reviewed by superior courts – the various issues of policy, which have been raised.”
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.
He also agreed with Islamic Center opponents that an agenda detailing what items were to be considered at the May 24, 2010, regularly scheduled meeting should have been included in the public notice.
“Corlew did not say that the county violated the law,” said Frank Gibson, former executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. “He said the way local officials interpreted the law – how they used it – was inadequate under these circumstances.”
Regardless, Gibson said the ruling “is a victory for advocates of more open government” because Corlew found there are weaknesses in current Tennessee laws pertaining to open meetings and public notice requirements.
“The public deserves as much notice as possible,” Gibson said.
Judge punts on newspaper legality
However, Corlew declined to rule on whether The Post is a newspaper of general circulation. He said there was “no pending controversy” regarding its legitimacy and The Post still “continues to provide a positive presence in the local community.”
In November 2011, Corlew allowed The Post to intervene in the lawsuit to defend itself against accusations it is not a proper medium for public notices.
“Even if the Planning Commission ran the public notice in The Daily News Journal, the county still would have lost because it was not put on the government’s website or advertised on the local television station,” said attorney David LaRoche, who represented The Post.
He said The Post, which has not yet determined whether to file an appeal, hoped Corlew would set the record straight because the newspaper has been harmed by baseless accusations.
“The proof showed that we are the largest newspaper of general circulation in Rutherford County,” LaRoche said. “But, Corlew ruled the County Commission should have used more resources to advertise the public notice. If anything, he criticized the law because it does not give county officials guidance on what does constitute adequate public notice.”
If something seems too controversial, then this ruling means a local government must now go above and beyond the law to meet adequate public notice, said Tonda F. Rush, president of the National Newspaper Association, who also serves as associate general counsel of the American Newspaper Publishers Association.
“If the judge intends to raise doubt about whether community newspapers are the right vehicles for public notices, we would have grave concerns,” Rush said, adding for more than a century, community newspapers have proved to be the best outlets for informing residents about local issues, including public notices.
Plaintiffs: 'Justice is served'
While many people said they are shocked with the ruling, opponents of the Islamic Center claimed victory against what they have argued is an attempt to usurp the U.S. Constitution through Islamic traditions – yet again, touting the matter as a terrorism concern, in addition to a public notice issue.
“This is a huge victory,” Brandon said, “not only for the plaintiffs but all Rutherford County residents. This is the first time in American history that the political organization of Islam has been stopped in its tracks – and for good reason. Shariah Law and the U.S. Constitution cannot coexist.”
Kevin Fisher, who led the charge against the Planning Commission, praised the outcome of the lawsuit.
“Justice is served,” he said. “God gets the glory.”
This is a victory for all Middle Tennessee residents who have been victims of falsehoods spread by the Muslim community for the sake of advancing Islam during this process, said Lou Ann Zelenik, who is a Republican primary candidate in the 6th Congressional District race.
Zelenik has publicly challenged the project for more than two years, even founding the Tennessee Freedom Coalition in opposition of the Islamic Center.
“This was not an issue of freedom of religion,” she said. “Islam does not claim to be a religion. (It is) a social and political system that intends to dominate every facet of our lives and seeks to dominate its host culture by any means, including force and violence.”