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Tennessee judge voids approval for new mosque

Rules that public wasn’t given adequate notice

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

Construction personnel continued work on the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro in Tennessee Tuesday afternoon. A judge issued an order Tuesday that is expected to stop construction.

NASHVILLE - Construction of a Tennessee mosque that has been strongly opposed by critics of Islam probably will be stopped after a judge ruled Tuesday that local officials didn’t give the public adequate notice before the meeting where it was approved.

The mosque was one of several Muslim projects in the United States that hit a swell of conservative opposition around the same time as the controversy over a plan to build a Muslim community center near New York’s ground zero.

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Chancellor Robert Corlew found that the Rutherford County Planning Commission didn’t do enough to inform the public of the May 2010 meeting when it approved the site plan for the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro.

Though his ruling voids the approval, he noted there was nothing stopping the commission from reconsidering the issue and voting on the mosque site plan again, as long as any action they take is for “nondiscriminatory reasons.’’

Saleh Sbenaty, a spokesman for the mosque, said the ruling was disappointing but his group remained committed to building the Islamic center. Muslims have been worshipping for many years at a smaller site in Murfreesboro, a city of about 100,000 people southeast of Nashville.

Opponents of the Tennessee mosque have fought for two years to stop construction. During hearings in 2010, they presented testimony that in effect put Islam on trial. A string of witnesses questioned whether Islam is a legitimate religion and promoted a theory that American Muslims want to replace the Constitution with extremist Islamic law and that the mosque was a part of that plot.

The judge dismissed those allegations but held a trial on the narrower claim that the public meeting law was violated because meeting notice was inadequate. The meeting notice was published in the Murfreesboro Post, a free weekly newspaper that had a circulation of about 21,000 at the time the legal advertisement was placed.

The ruling noted that only about 196 papers were placed in racks in unincorporated areas of the county, despite the fact that approximately one-third of the county’s more than 250,000 people live in those areas.

State law requires that local governments provide “adequate public notice’’ for meetings, without defining what is adequate.

The county argued that local officials did all that was required of them legally by placing a notice in the print and Web editions of the newspaper - the same practice they use for advertising all public meetings. Those notices did not include an agenda.

In his opinion, Corlew said the public interest in the mosque meant the county should have taken extra steps to ensure that the public was aware of the meeting where it would be discussed.

After the ruling was made public, the Council on American-Islamic Relations called on the Justice Department to intervene to protect the rights of Muslims in Tennessee if the Planning Commission does not immediately issue new construction approvals.

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