Embattled Tennessee mosque opens

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Published August 10, 2012

| Associated Press

After surviving arson, vandalism, a bomb threat and legal action, a new mosque is scheduled to open today for Friday afternoon prayers.

Rutherford County has issued the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro a temporary occupancy permit that will allow members to use the building while contractors finish the landscaping and other final touches to the property.

"I cannot express in words our excitement," said Saleh Sbenaty, who serves on the board of the mosque. "This shows that the Constitution of the United States withstands any kind of attack from either a small or large group."

The Tennessee mosque's first day of worship comes in the wake of a suspicious fire that destroyed an Islamic center in Joplin, Mo. and a white supremacist's deadly attack on a Milwaukee area temple belonging to a congregation of Sikhs, who are often mistaken for Muslims.

In a suburb 30 miles south of Nashville, the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro has faced legal challenges and illegal threats over the past two years.

Shortly after construction began in 2010, a vandal spray-painted the phrase "not welcome" on a sign announcing the new mosque. Federal investigators were called in after an arson fire destroyed excavating equipment at the site. And members of the congregation said they received threatening letters, phone calls and emails.

Residents opposing the mosque filed an unsuccessful lawsuit to block its construction by claiming that Islam was not a real religion and that Muslims intended to replace the U.S. Constitution with Sharia Law.

Construction nearly halted in May when a local judge ruled that Rutherford County officials had failed to provide sufficient notice of the meeting in which the building was approved. But U.S. attorneys intervened, arguing that the county judge had created a separate standard for the Islamic Center. A federal judge ruled in favor of the mosque.

"A mosque has to be treated the same as other religious groups," said Lori Windham of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a non-profit advocacy group. "(The federal judge) said that you can't treat a religious group differently because it's unpopular. It's a rule that's going to protect the mosque today, a synagogue tomorrow and a church on Sunday."

Last month, the Becket Fund collected signatures from a diverse array of Christian, Jewish and other religious organizations condemning the threats against the Tennessee mosque.

The letter states, "When the liberty of one faith is abridged, the liberty of all faiths -- and all citizens -- is threatened. Therefore, we stand united in our dedication to the First Amendment, the Constitution and the inalienable right of religious liberty for all."

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