- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Mosques aren’t roiling just New York. Plans to build a Muslim worship center in Murfreesboro, Tenn., have taken a front seat in two major political races that Tennessee voters will decide Thursday.

The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, Tenn., intends to build a $5 million mosque on a 15-acre plot it purchased last winter, which has sparked intense debates between candidates in the Republican primaries for governor and one of the state’s U.S. House seats.

Lou Ann Zelenik, who seeks the nomination in the Republican-leaning 6th District, strongly opposes the plans and has garnered national attention for calling it an “Islamic training center” and highlighting its links to the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas.

“Religious toleration is the bedrock of our freedom, but no nation is required to extend toleration to religions that preach against public order and safety,” she said. “The two professional politicians in this race are either completely out of touch with our community or too worried about [political] correctness to care.”

The Rutherford County Planning Department approved the plans in May, despite growing concern among local residents, who worry about having Muslims in their community.

But the two other leading candidates running for the 6th District seat, which covers 15 counties in central Tennessee, have spoken out in favor of the 52,000-square-foot facility, which will include athletic fields and a school.

“I will always follow the wisdom of our forefathers as laid down in the constitution and that means I believe that all Americans must be free to practice their faith as long as it does not threaten other Americans or our national security,” state Sen. Diane Black, who helped push a religious toleration bill in June 2009, said in a statement to The Washington Times.

Republican state Sen. Jim Tracy also supported that bill, leading to criticism from Ms. Zelenik, and has answered questions about the mosque by saying that “the First Amendment is freedom of religion, and that is very clear.”

The 6th District seat, which is being vacated by 13-term Rep. Bart Gordon, a conservative Democrat, is rated by Real Clear Politics as a “likely GOP” win. But at least one Democrat already has made the Republican mosque quarreling an issue.

Ben Leming, one of five Democrats running for the seat, has called Ms. Zelenik’s criticisms of the religious center “antithetical to American values.”

“I support the right of all people of faith in America to practice their religion, no matter what that religion may be,” he said. “Unfortunately, some critics of the Islamic center believe that Muslim-Americans aren’t entitled to this constitutional protection.”

No independent scientific polling in the race has been conducted recently. The Black campaign commissioned a poll in early July showing its candidate in the lead. But Ms. Zelenik was first and Ms. Black third in a customary local straw poll released in mid-July.

The Murfreesboro mosque is also a bone of contention among the candidates running for governor, including Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who recently said that Islam may not even be a religion, rather a “cult” and more like “a violent political philosophy more than peace-loving religion.”

“I have taken some heat lately for criticizing that a part of the Muslim religion is not traditionally a religion, and I think most Americans would agree with me,” he told The Times.

“If Muslims are willing to come to our country, live under our Constitution, live under our laws, then we don’t have a problem with that. But to come here and bring their own laws that don’t assimilate into American culture, then I have a problem with that.”

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