MURFREESBORO, Tenn. – A judge refused Wednesday to stop construction of a proposed mosque in Tennessee that was opposed by some local residents who tried to argue that there was a conspiracy by Muslims to impose extremist law on the United States.
Opponents filed a lawsuit claiming that Rutherford County planning officials violated Tennessee's open meetings law when they approved the site plan for an Islamic Center in Murfreesboro, about 30 miles southeast of Nashville.
Rutherford County Chancellor Robert Corlew ruled after closing arguments that he could not find that the "county acted illegally, arbitrarily or capriciously" in approving the plan.
But much of the questioning from plaintiffs' attorney Joe Brandon Jr. during seven days of testimony since late September was about whether Islam qualified as a religion. He pushed his theory that American Muslims want to replace the Constitution with extremist Islamic law.
Corlew said there was some concern about the public notice requirements and suggested county or state officials look at those requirements. But he said the court did not find that members of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro adhered to extremist religious ideas.
Mosque leaders want to expand their facilities to accommodate a growing congregation and currently the proposed site is being prepared but no construction has started. Federal investigators are looking into a dump truck that was set on fire at the construction site earlier this year and twice the sign announcing the future site of the new Islamic center was vandalized.
Brandon had his hands on his face and at times was bent over the desk during the judge's ruling. Afterward he briskly walked out of the courtroom without addressing the media.
Laurie Cardoza-Moore, who opposes the mosque but was not among the plaintiffs, said the plaintiffs are disappointed with the judge's decision. However, she said the judge did recognize some of their concerns regarding notification of public meetings.
"We felt like the judge did hear us on those issues," she said.
During the testimony, witnesses pointed out that Islamic Center of Murfreesboro board member Mosaad Rowash previously had pro-Hamas postings on his MySpace page, something the mosque's leaders have not denied. The U.S. government considers Hamas, a Palestinian Islamic political party with an armed wing that has attacked Israel, a terrorist organization.
But Corlew said the actions of individuals associated with the mosque was poor judgment.
Brandon said before the ruling that the dispute would continue, however the judge rules. "If the court rules against us, we're not going to stop," he said.
Cardoza-Moore said the legal team would meet with the plaintiffs to decide the next course of action.
Jim Cope, the attorney for the county, said they will be prepared for any further challenges.
"We will continue to defend the county's rights and interests in seeing the actions that we took were upheld appropriately," he said.
Layla Hantouli, a 22-year-old Muslim woman who has been following the testimony, was glad the judge ruled against the mosque opponents.
"The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro is not promoting anything violent or anything unlawful," she said.