By Tim Ghianni
NASHVILLE, Tennessee (Reuters) - A Muslim congregation asked a federal court on Wednesday to order a Tennessee county to allow its nearly completed Islamic Center near Nashville to be used for the observance of Ramadan, which begins at sunset on Thursday.
The U.S. government backed the action by suing the county in federal court to allow the congregation to immediately use the mosque.
The legal actions added urgency to a long-running local fight over the mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, about 30 miles from Nashville.
Since plans for a new 52,000-square-foot (4,831 square meter) Islamic center to replace a 30-year-old facility were approved by local authorities in 2010, local opponents have tried to stop it.
They have argued that Islam is not a religion protected by the U.S. Constitution, that the Islamic Center would promote Sharia law, and that it would have "terrorist" ties.
The future of the mosque was dealt a blow in May when a judge in Rutherford County, where Murfreesboro is located, ruled that the county had not given enough public notice before the 2010 planning commission meeting where the plans were approved.
While construction was allowed to continue on the mosque, the judge refused to issue a permit to allow the congregation to use it while his ruling was being appealed.
On behalf of the congregation, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington-based non-profit law firm, filed the request for a court order to allow the mosque to be used. The Justice Department filed its suit in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee.
"We have avoided litigation as long as we possibly could," said Ossama Bahloul, the Murfreesboro imam. "But this lawsuit appeared to be the only way we could use our new mosque by the start of Ramadan."
"We hope the court will uphold the right of religious liberty for all, which is part of what makes this country so great," he said.
(Editing by Greg McCune)