The third-floor hall of the Judicial Building erupted with conflict Monday, moments after Chancellor Robert Corlew recused himself from a challenge to a Muslim cemetery.
Members of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro had to be separated from a group of residents seeking to overturn a vote by the Rutherford County Board of Zoning Appeals allowing burials at the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro.
Mosque cemetery opponents also clashed with Channel 4 reporter Larry Flowers in the crowded hallway when he tried to shoot video just outside Corlew’s courtroom.
As mosque opponent Lou Ann Zelenik challenged Flowers, saying “Who are you?” he responded, “I don’t have a dog in this hunt,” and “You know who I am.” Flowers, who said he has interviewed Zelenik numerous times, contended that one of the mosque opponents tried to grab his camera when they emerged from the courtroom.
Judicial Building security deputies were called to the third floor to keep order, and ICM attorney John Green told his client’s members to turn away from the mosque foes.
Still, mosque members and opponents accused each other of lying, and later Zelenik questioned the motives of a young Muslim woman who said she was a journalist shooting video for an assignment at the University of Maryland.
Moments earlier, Corlew accepted Green’s request that he step down from the case after state and federal courts reversed him on other rulings he made connected to a four-year battle over the ICM’s location on Veals Road off Bradyville Pike.
In asking Corlew to recuse himself, Green said the chancellor’s previous decisions related to the ICM “resulted in great cost” to the county government and that he permitted, and encouraged, evidence on “extraneous” issues such as whether Islam is a religion.
Green questioned whether the chancellor could be impartial and unbiased in hearing the case related to the ICM and noted that previous court procedures and their outcome “garnered regional, national and international notoriety."
Corlew was to hear a petition by residents seeking to turn back a January BZA decision approving the ICM cemetery.
Duncan Cave, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said afterward he wants to have the case heard, no matter which judge handles the matter. He wasn’t sure Monday if he would file an appeal.
How it started
In December, the county BZA asked that the ICM come back a month later with information about the construction of a turning lane on Bradyville Pike onto Veals Road and with soil samples.
In January, the BZA approved the burial site after looking at information from a geotechnical study taken before the county planning commission approved a site plan four years ago and a traffic analysis by the state Department of Transportation done after site plan approval.
The county BZA also placed five stipulations on the ICM cemetery: 1) that grave sites be limited to 1,500; 2) that no monument be taller than a foot; 3) that no grave be deeper than 5 feet; 4) that the special exception would expire if the property were sold to a non-religious entity; and 5) the cemetery layout and gravesite records would have to be kept by the ICM.
Initial planning commission approval in 2010 led to a protracted lawsuit in which mosque opponents challenged whether the county provided adequate public notice of the planning commission’s vote. Corlew ultimately ruled against the county, but a federal judge reversed his decision and allowed the ICM to occupy its building.
Zelenik called the request for Corlew’s recusal a “sad” situation, saying the chancellor is highly respected and had been fair throughout the court process. Federal judges, on the other hand, took away the mosque opponents’ due process, she said.
Zelenik also challenged the BZA’s decision and showed photos of standing water on the mosque cemetery site after 1.5 inches of rain fell there in 24 hours earlier this year.
“It’s just a matter of the BZA not doing their job,” Zelenik said.
ICM attorney Green said the hallway brouhaha was reminiscent of the four years of court battles.
The “degree of hyperbole and misinformation” coming from mosque opponents borders on “absurdity,” Green said.