- The Washington Times - Monday, October 18, 2010

The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division Tuesday came out in support of the construction and expansion of an Islamic mosque in Murfreesboro, Tenn., that local landowners and others have bitterly opposed.

A “friend of the court” brief was filed in a pending lawsuit in state court against Rutherford County, Tenn. The county had granted permission for the construction of the $5 million mosque on a 15-acre site.

The move comes in the wake of a bitter national debate in New York City over a planned mosque and Islamic community center to be built just two blocks from the Sept. 11 ground zero site.

The Justice Department’s brief argued that Islam is a religion entitled to protection under the First Amendment, noting that “consistent among all three branches of government, the United States has recognized Islam as a major world religion.” It also said that Rutherford County properly determined it must treat the mosque project as it would other proposals for construction of places of worship.

“A mosque is quite plainly a place of worship, and the county rightly recognized that it had an obligation to treat mosques the same as churches, synagogue or any other religious assemblies,” said Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez, who heads the department’s Civil Rights Division.

“This is not only common sense; it is required by federal law,” said Mr. Perez, who visited Murfreesboro earlier this month to reassure local Muslims that the department would take seriously any civil rights violations.

The mosque’s construction sparked intense debates in the Republican primaries for governor and one of the state’s U.S. House seats, with those who most bitterly opposed the mosque being defeated. One of them was Lou Ann Zelenik, running in the Republican-leaning 6th Congressional District, who called the project an “Islamic training center” and highlighted its links to the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas.

In their lawsuit, local landowners and others have charged that the proposed Islamic Center of Murfreesboro does not meet the standards set for its designation as a religious meeting place. They argued that area Muslims are seeking to institute “Sharia law” — an Islamic system of law — in Murfreesboro and county officials should have investigated the mosque’s political agenda and its membership before approving site plans.

The landowners’ attorney, Joe Brandon Jr., also has accused county officials of violating the state’s “open meeting” law in granting the construction permit, saying that local government officials failed to give adequate notice and met privately before the site plan was formally approved.

Mr. Brandon has referred to the county officials who approved the site plan as “cowards stricken by fear.”

In August, FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) agents were called to the site to investigate a predawn fire that damaged four pieces of construction equipment. The fire later was determined to be an arson.

The center would be a 52,000-square-foot facility with a pool, gym and school in addition to a mosque. There has been a mosque in Murfreesboro since 1997, but with more than 250 Islamic families, it has argued that it has run out of space.

U.S. Attorney Jerry E. Martin in Nashville said that while the mosque challenge is currently a local matter, the Justice Department and the U.S. attorney’s office “vigorously support” the decision of the Rutherford County Regional Planning Commission and the Board of Commissioners to approve the expansion.

“To suggest that Islam is not a religion is quite simply ridiculous,” Mr. Martin said. “Each branch of the federal government has independently recognized Islam as one of the major religions of the world.”

Mr. Martin argued that, had county officials accepted the plaintiffs’ arguments, it would have been in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, passed by Congress in 2000.

The RLUIPA protects the rights of religious assemblies and institutions to be free from discrimination in the application of zoning and land-use laws. In the 10 years since its passage, Mr. Martin said RLUIPA has helped secure the ability of thousands of persons and institutions to practice their faiths freely and without discrimination.

• Jerry Seper can be reached at jseper@washingtontimes.com.

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