Officials with the U.S. Department of Justice discusses an indictment against Javier A. Correa on June 21, 2012, outside of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro in Tennessee. (Photo by M. Kemph)
During an emergency hearing held Wednesday afternoon, a federal judge in Nashville ruled the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro may open for the religion's holy month of Ramadan, which starts tomorrow.
U.S. District Court Judge Todd Campbell issued a 14-day temporary restraning order compelling Rutherford County to start the inspections neccessary to issue an occupancy permit for the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro.
The U.S. Department of Justice filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday alleging the local government violated the law when it complied with a Rutherford County Chancery Court judge’s ruling that prohibits officials from issuing a certificate of occupancy to members of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro.
“Our nation was founded on bedrock principles of religious liberty,” said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division. “The Justice Department will continue to vigorously enforce civil rights laws that protect religious freedom.”
The Justice Department is suing the Rutherford County Commission in the U.S. District Court of Middle Tennessee for violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, a federal law that prohibits discrimination in land use and zoning decisions.
The announcement comes only hours after attorneys representing the Islamic Center filed a lawsuit in the same U.S. District Court as well, contending the Muslim community's constitutional rights are being violated.
According to the federal lawsuit, officials are demanding an occupancy certificate be issued immediately – regardless of the partial injunction – so that the Islamic Center can hold worship services at the new facility during the religion’s holy month of Ramadan, which begins Thursday at sundown.
“The U.S. Attorney’s Office will zealously protect every citizen’s right to worship and assemble,” U.S. Attorney Jerry E. Martin said. “If we do not protect the rights of these congregants in Rutherford County, then the rights of all people are endangered and diminished.”
For more than two years, opponents of the Islamic Center have fought to stop construction of the new mosque, located on Veals Road off Bradyville Pike.
In just one of several recent rulings, Chancellor Robert Corlew III issued a court order barring the Rutherford County Planning Commission from approving any future plans and enjoined the local government from processing any certificate.
He then denied a request by Rutherford County officials July 2 to lift the partial injunction, saying the order would remain in place until the Tennessee Court of Appeals reviews his previous ruling.
In May, Corlew ruled the Planning Commission failed to provide adequate public notice prior to approving construction of the Islamic Center.
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 May 2010 meeting.
As part of their complaint, Justice Department officials lambasted Corlew’s decision, arguing he is imposing a heightened notice requirement on the mosque, one not imposed on other religious or secular organizations.
“When a faith community follows the rules, as the Islamic Center has done in seeking to construct its place of worship,” Perez said, “it is impermissible to change the rules in a discriminatory way that prevents people of faith from exercising their fundamental right to worship.”