Opponents of a proposed mosque in Tennessee will get to make their case at a two-day trial that starts today. They also wish to challenge Islam's legal status as a religion.
Plaintiffs want to void a May 2010 meeting of the Rutherford County Planning Commission in which it approved the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro's site plan. Their principal claim is that the public was not adequately notified ahead of time.
Voiding the meeting would rescind the approval, forcing mosque members to seek new approval in a climate made hostile by nearly two years of plaintiffs' unsubstantiated claims that members have ties to terrorists.
Plaintiffs have also claimed that Islam is not a religion and does not deserve First Amendment protections. This claim prompted the intervention of local U.S. Attorney Jerry Martin. His office filed a brief confirming that Islam is a recognized religion. Martin said at the time that to suggest otherwise was "quite simply ridiculous."
The proposed mosque is one of a few Muslim projects in the U.S. that hit a swell of conservative opposition around the same time as the controversy over a plan to build a Muslim community center near New York's ground zero.
Chancellor Robert Corlew has ruled against the plaintiffs on their claims related to the supposed threat posed by the mosque. The only issues to be argued at trial are supposed to relate to whether there was sufficient public notice for the meeting.
However, plaintiffs have sought to keep alive questions about the mosque's legitimacy as a house of worship. In a hearing last week, plaintiffs' attorney Thomas Smith asked the judge to consider the totality of the circumstances when deciding whether meeting notice was sufficient, including the supposed dangers raised by plaintiffs.
Because the Islamic Center itself is not named as a defendant, mosque members have not been able to defend themselves against the accusations in court.
On Wednesday, Saleh Sbenaty, a mosque spokesman and a professor of engineering at Middle Tennessee State University, said there has been a mosque in Murfreesboro for over 30 years, but no one considered it a threat until this controversy erupted. Local Muslims want to build a new mosque because they have outgrown their current space in an office complex.
Sbenaty, who is originally from Syria, said the constant attacks have been draining.
"I left my country over 30 years ago to get my freedom over here, and now that's being threatened," he said. "My First Amendment rights are under fire."
"Trial begins in lawsuit against county's approval of proposed mosque in Tennessee" The Washington Posy April 25, 2012
"Public notice battle has far-reaching implications; Trial begins in case against mosque, county" DNJ April 25, 2012
"Murfreesboro Mosque Trial To Start Wednesday" News Channel 5 April 25, 2012
Reproduced with permission from Islam Today