by Sarah Jones
Opponents of an Islamic center in Murfreesboro, Tenn., are trying to take their fight to the Supreme Court – even though their losing battle has so far cost them $343, 276. It’s the latest twist in a costly legal saga that has trickled through the courts for nearly four years.
As reported by The Wire, the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro has existed since the 1980s. Controversy only erupted in 2010, when local Muslims decided to move to a larger facility. A group of local residents filed suit to prevent construction of the new mosque, relying on the spectacular argument that Islam isn’t actually a religion, and that the center’s mere presence represents a security risk.
That argument failed miserably with the Tennessee courts (and the Department of Justice), and the center opened in 2012. The center is more than a mosque: the congregation eventually hopes to add recreational facilities and classrooms, and a recent request to add a cemetery to the grounds ignited another fight.
Joe Brandon, the attorney who represents the center’s opponents, told the Tennessean in 2013, “I understand that they want Shariah law in Rutherford County. What is wrong with wanting to ask questions about direct ties to terrorism? What’s the harm in that? Why do we have to undergo cavity searches at the airports? It’s because of the Muslims.”
Undeterred by failure and their mounting legal costs, opponents filed a writ of certiorari (a petition for a Supreme Court hearing) last month. Brandon and his co-counsel, Thomas Smith, are asking the nation’s highest court to consider if the center’s construction violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of “due process protection of life, liberty and property.”
A bit of history on the Fourteenth Amendment: It’s considered one of the “Reconstruction” amendments, passed in the wake of the Civil War to address racist discrimination in the South. It’s a terrible irony that Brandon and Smith are now attempting to use it to justify their own discrimination against another minority group.
Brandon and Smith also argue that the Islamic center “officially and publicly promote, sponsor and condone illegal behavior or terrorists and their teachings and activities.” Of course, there’s no evidence to support the conclusion that Muslims who attend the center have ties to terrorist groups. That’s why the lower courts repeatedly ruled in favor of the center’s construction.
The arguments presented by Brandon and Smith on behalf of their clients reveal a remarkably selective definition of religious liberty. In 2010, Time reported that when a local Baptist church built a new facility, it encountered no public outcry, no lawsuit alleging that it posed a security risk to the surrounding population.
A similar fight could be brewing in Idaho. A proposal to build an Islamic center in Pocatello has encountered opposition from members of the community. The Idaho State Journal reports that at a zoning hearing, a local pastor announced that Islam teaches “intolerance” and added, “I get very fearful because I live close to this place.” One woman even threatened to move out of town if the Planning and Development Department approved the center’s construction.
This morning, the department did just that, and construction for Pocatello’s new Islamic center will proceed. This should not be controversial. The First Amendment rights of Pocatello’s Muslims can’t be restricted by shadowy conspiracy theories.
The controversies over Islamic centers in Tennessee and Idaho aren’t isolated incidents. So-called “anti-Shariah” bills have appeared in multiple state legislatures. In Louisiana, a legislator who had no problem supporting the state’s voucher program – which sends public funds to sectarian private schools – suddenly retracted her support for it upon realizing Islamic schools could receive voucher students.
The First Amendment guarantees religious liberty to everyone. You can’t expect the government to restrict someone else’s rights simply because you find their religious affiliation to be distasteful. Personal prejudice should not – and does not – have the force of law.
The opponents of Murfreesboro’s Islamic center should ask themselves how they could spend their time, and their money, to benefit their local community, instead of wasting resources in a futile legal battle to deny other people the rights they themselves enjoy.