Imam Ossama Bahloul discusses the importance of Ramadan for the Muslim community during a July 20, 2012, prayer service at the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro in Tennessee. (TMP Photo/T. Swann)
During prayer services Friday, leaders praised the decision by a federal judge to overturn an injunction barring the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro from opening its nearly complete mosque, saying the ruling has brought long-awaited justice to the Muslim community.
“Justice came to us,” Imam Ossama Bahloul said. “Ramadan this year reaches us at a very special time for our community. We have received the good news about the federal court not standing on our side – standing on the side of the U.S. Constitution.”
In an emergency hearing held Wednesday in Nashville, U.S. District Court Judge Todd Campbell issued a 14-day temporary restraining order requiring Rutherford County to begin the inspection process necessary to issue an occupancy certificate for use of the mosque.
One day after the ruling, officials with the Rutherford County Building Codes Department conducted a preliminary inspection of the mosque. However, 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. Both parties successfully argued the Rutherford County Chancery Court order that prohibited officials from issuing the occupancy certificate violated the rights of of the Muslim community.
As part of his decision, Campbell said the partial injunction issued by Chancellor Robert Corlew III was incorrectly imposed based on a “heightened public notice requirement,” which caused undue harm to the “free exercise of religion without a compelling governmental interest.”
That heightened requirement was formed under a decision earlier this year, in which Corlew ruled the Rutherford County Planning Commission failed to provide adequate public notice prior to approving construction of the mosque.
Although he stopped short of halting construction, Corlew said an occupancy certificate could not be issued because his previous decision voided authorization of a site plan proposal, which was approved by the Planning Commission during a regularly scheduled May 2010 meeting.
“Equal treatment of citizens under the law and the full expression of religious interests are in the public interest,” Campbell said, noting any further delays would cause irreparable harm to members of the Islamic Center.
Even though opponents have fought to halt construction for more than two years, Bahloul told Islamic Center members Ramadan is a time for forgiveness. He said they should not harbor ill will toward those who oppose the mosque, noting the Muslim community should forgive them and “ask God to put peace in their heart.”
“Do not hold any hard feelings in your heart toward anyone, even those on the opposition side,” he said, during the prayer service. “They are not bad people. They are people in need of help.”
Sbenaty expressed similar sentiments, and he invited Islamic Center opponents to visit the new mosque once it is completed.
“We pray that those people who had a bad idea about the Muslim community will take a closer look because our facility will be open to them,” he said, “so that they can ask questions and express any concerns not yet addressed.”