Contractor says Murfreesboro mosque not ready to open
MURFREESBORO, TN (WSMV-AP) -
Tennessee Muslims who won a court battle to occupy their new mosque will have to wait a little longer while construction is finished.
Construction supervisor David Salimi said a codes inspector visited the site near Murfreesboro on Thursday morning but that it will take about two more weeks of work to be ready.
"Right now we're mainly looking at structure and life safety features to possibly be able to do the final inspection for occupancy in the future," said Rutherford County Building Codes Director David Jones.
Members had hoped to be in the new Islamic Center of Murfreesboro by sundown Thursday, the beginning of Ramadan.
"We understand the inspection process is going to take several days," said ICM Board Member Saleh Sbenaty.
The building has electricity but no water. Thursday, the septic tank was installed, but the Department of Environment will have to give it a stamp of approval. Also, the fire marshal still has to sign off on the sprinkler system and other safety items.
Officials said the recent record-breaking temperatures and rain delayed construction at the site.
"It's real close to a final. Some fixtures are set, some are not. They do have a lot of work to be done cosmetically," Jones said.
Mosque members and federal prosecutors persuaded a federal judge Wednesday to order the county to push ahead with approving the building for use.
"We're really excited to see the ending of this chapter, and the last paragraph is being written," Sbenaty said. "This is a chapter in the history of our community and our country, as well. It may not be the brightest chapter."
Mosque opponents waged a 2-year court battle and won a delay in the opening earlier this month.
Federal prosecutors also filed a similar lawsuit.
"The United States Attorney's Office will zealously protect every citizen's right to worship and assemble," said Jerry E. Martin, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee, in press release. "If we do not protect the rights of these congregants in Rutherford County, then the rights of all people are endangered and diminished."
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.
Joe Brandon, attorney for the 14 plaintiffs who sued Rutherford County hoping to stop construction said the federal ruling is a slap in the face.
"We find it highly offensive that we have gone through the proper legal proceeding. That's what America was founded upon," Brandon said. "We fought this case. We won this case - only to turn around and look back and see we have been robbed by the U.S. Department of Justice. That's offensive."
ICM leaders are hoping the building can be finished and the final inspection completed by mid-August, which will give them a little time to celebrate part of the holy month of Ramadan in the new building.
"We're still excited and delighted to have this great news that came as a blessing of Ramadan," Sbenaty said.
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."
In court Wednesday, U.S. Attorney Jerry Martin said the chancery court judge, in essence, created a separate "mosque standard" applicable only to someone who wants to build a mosque.
Citing acts of vandalism, arson and a bomb threat against the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, Martin said, "The Muslim community in Rutherford County has been under siege for the last two years. Now, after doing everything right, they are told that they can't move in."
Martin asked the federal judge to fulfill a promise made by the congregation's religious leader, Imam Ossama Bahloul, to the children of the congregation that justice would be done and they would be allowed to worship in their new space.
The congregation is being represented by The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and local civil rights attorney George Barrett. The lawsuit 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, citing 20 instances of Christian churches that have been allowed to build since 2000. " ... 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."
Attorneys for Rutherford County did not oppose the temporary restraining order. County attorneys have argued in chancery court hearings that treating the mosque differently from other applicants was discriminatory and a violation of their rights.
County Attorney Jim Cope said after the hearing that he felt vindicated by Campbell's ruling.
Mosque leader Bahloul said he had been reluctant to involve the mosque in the lawsuit but felt he had no choice after the certificate of occupancy was refused.
He said Campbell's ruling means a lot to Muslims in Tennessee and their supporters.
"I think this is an opportunity for us all to celebrate the freedom and liberty that, in fact, exist in America and to teach our young people to believe even more in the U.S. Constitution," he said.
Copyright WSMV 2012 (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this article.
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