A years-long legal battle over the very existence of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro in Tennessee has cost Rutherford County $343,276 in legal fees, as a group of plaintiffs opposed to the center's existence continue to pursue their lawsuit against the county planning commissioners who approved it. And that number will likely go up as the county's legal team prepares to respond to an appeal request to the U.S. Supreme Court, as the Tennessean reported on Wednesday.
Here's the legal battle so far: the plaintiffs in the case, comprised of a group of county residents, argue in the lawsuit that the Rutherford County Regional Planning Commission didn't give enough public notice before approving plans for the Islamic center's construction in 2010. That argument was accepted by local Chancellor Robert Corlew III, but later overruled by the Tennessee Court of Appeals, who found that the planning commission's unanimous decision was by the books. The Tennessee Supreme Court then denied a request for an appeal. Then, Corlew tried to deny the Islamic organization's application for an occupancy permit, resulting in the Department of Justice getting involved in the dispute.
The mosque eventually opened, thanks in part to an order by a federal court, in time for Ramadan in August, 2012. Now, the same group of plaintiffs want the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on whether the DoJ overstepped its boundaries by intervening. The fight will basically never go away.
But even the plaintiffs' legal team admits that the case isn't really about planning commissions. It's about Muslims. The legal team fighting the mosque openly discusses the case in terms of "us" and "them," where "they" are the Islamic population of Murfreesboro. Here's what attorney Joe Brandon, who lives in Murfreesboro, told the Tennessean earlier this year:
“I understand that they want Shariah law (ethical codes of conduct for Muslims) in Rutherford County...What is wrong with wanting to ask questions about direct ties to terrorism? What’s the harm in that? Why do we have to undergo cavity searches at the airports? It’s because of the Mulims.”
Although the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro has existed in the town since the early 1980's, the region's Muslim population became the subject of some outrage when the 1,000-strong congregation bought land to build a bigger facility, after their old center became too cramped. Shortly after the planning commission approved construction plans, some residents let their feelings about their neighbors be known.
When the Islamic Center put up a sign on their land announcing that it would be the "future home" of their new building, someone spray painted "NOT WELCOME" all over it. Construction equipment parked at the site was set on fire. At the first planning commission meeting following the mosque's approval, angry residents turned up to speak their minds. A local pastor said to the commission that "we have a duty to investigate anyone under the banner of Islam." A homeowner two blocks from the new mosque's new home said of Muslims that "we are fighting these people, for crying out loud, we should not be promoting this." The dispute became a national story, partially because of a similar controversy over Park 51, a then-proposed Islamic center in a building two blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center towers. Park 51 opened in 2011.
Although the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro is in a primarily residential neighborhood, the organization was allowed to build a large complex on its land, thanks in part to a federal law that lifts many land use and zoning restrictions for religious institutions. Some opponents to the Islamic Center, which included recreational facilities as well as a place of worship, have claimed that the center shouldn't be protected under the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment and therefore any religious freedom law because they believe Islam isn't a religion.