NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A federal judge ordered a Tennessee county on Wednesday to move ahead with opening a Muslim congregation's newly built mosque after a two-year fight from opponents.
The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro sued Rutherford County earlier in the day and asked District Judge Todd Campbell for an emergency order to let worshippers into the building before the holy month of Ramadan starts at sundown Thursday.
Federal prosecutors then stepped in with a similar lawsuit.
The future of the mosque had been in question since May, when a local judge overturned the county's approval of the mosque construction. This month he ordered the county not to issue an occupancy permit for the 12,000-square-foot building.
Campbell ordered the county to move ahead on approving the mosque for use, although it wasn't immediately clear if that could happen by Thursday. Final inspection of the building is required.
The contentious fight over the mosque stems from a 2010 lawsuit filed by a group of residents who made repeated claims that Islam was not a real religion and that local Muslims intended to overthrow the U.S. Constitution in favor of Islamic religious law.
Those claims were dismissed, but opponents won with a ruling that overturned the approval to build the mosque on the grounds that county didn't give adequate public notice of the meeting.
Although the county advertised that meeting in the same way it has advertised others, the judge said extra notice was needed because the mosque construction was "an issue of major importance to citizens."
The Department of Justice Civil Rights Division said in its lawsuit seeking to open the building that the order imposed an improper burden on the mosque members because of their religion.
The congregation is being represented by The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and local civil rights attorney George Barrett. The suit filed in federal court in Nashville alleges violations of federal law and the constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and equal protection.
"If ICM were a Christian church, it would have been granted a certificate of occupancy and would be worshipping in its new facility today," a memorandum to the federal court reads. " ... The discriminatory treatment of the mosque also sends a powerful message to the Muslim community that they are second-class citizens, not worthy of the same rights or protection as Christian churches."