Murfreesboro judge won't let new mosque open

Friday, June 29, 2012, Vol. 36, No. 26

MURFREESBORO (AP) - A Rutherford County judge refused Monday to suspend an order that blocks a local mosque from getting a certificate of occupancy.

Chancellor Robert Corlew turned down county attorneys who wanted him to put his injunction on hold and allow the mosque to be used while they appeal the order to a higher court.

Corlew issued the injunction in mid-June after ruling that county officials did not provide sufficient public notice for a May 2010 meeting where the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro's construction plans were approved.

The county has argued that it treated that meeting like any other and has appealed Corlew's ruling to the Tennessee Court of Appeals.

"We have mentioned throughout our belief that to treat this applicant differently implicates issues under the constitution and religious freedom restoration acts," attorney Josh McCreary said.

Corlew declined to do so, saying that a stay would gut his earlier decision that the meeting notice was insufficient and therefore the construction approval was void.

"It's my duty to direct the county to recognize the voided nature of the matters addressed at that meeting," Corlew said.

The county thus far has declined to step in and stop construction, which has been ongoing throughout the dispute and is nearly complete.

Mosque opponents who brought the lawsuit want Corlew to force county officials to stop construction. On Monday, attorney Joe Brandon Jr. again argued in favor of that petition.

"What's the purpose of the law if you can go on like nothing ever happened?" he asked.

Corlew said he would issue a written opinion on the request later.

In the meantime, even if mosque members are able to complete construction, they will not be able to use the new mosque without a certificate of occupancy.

Corlew has repeatedly suggested that the county could remedy the situation by holding another meeting on the construction plans, this time giving the public more notice.

After the hearing on Monday, county attorney Jim Cope said the county can't do that because representatives from the mosque have not reapplied for construction approval.

"We can't make them reapply," Cope said, noting that mosque leaders have said publicly they do not plan to reapply because they believe they did everything correctly the first time around.

The mosque and its members are not part of the lawsuit, but mosque leader Essam Fathy has said they will consider legal action if necessary to protect their rights.