Religious Freedom For All: Supreme Court Declines To Hear Case Against Tennessee Mosque

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a case against the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro (ICM), the target of antagonistic legal action from community residents since 2010.

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear a case against the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro (ICM), the target of antagonistic legal action from community residents since 2010.

Plaintiffs had claimed that Rutherford County officials failed to give the community adequate public notice prior to the ICM’s construction -- if true, this would constitute a minor violation of county ordinances. But the plaintiffs failed to prove this violation actually occurred, and there’s strong evidence suggesting their concerns have been fuelled by virulent anti-Muslim prejudice, not facts.

As Religion News Service reports, the plaintiffs and their attorneys, Joe Brandon Jr. and Tom Smith, argued in court that Islam is not truly a religion and therefore did not qualify for First Amendment protections. Brandon also asserted that the mosque’s construction had been orchestrated by the Muslim Brotherhood as part of a nefarious plan to “raise the flag of Shariah” over the U.S. 

“Shariah law is pure sedition,” he told a court in 2010. 

Sadly for Brandon, there’s no evidence that the ICM and its supporters intend to implement Shariah in Rutherford County and as a result, his arguments didn’t impress lower courts, which repeatedly ruled against him. Now that the high court has rejected his request for an appeal, the lower court rulings stand and the mosque’s status is secure.

“It’s in the Lord’s hands now,” Brandon said in an interview with the Tennessean. “We’ve done all we can do.”

For the mosque’s supporters, it’s a satisfactory end to a saga that made their faith community the target of protests and drained the county of over $340,000 in legal fees. “We always believed that justice would prevail in this country, and we always believe in our justice system,” Saleh Sbenaty, an ICM representative, said.

He added, “And we have no doubt whatsoever that our case would be served justice. Hopefully this will put the end of the division the so-called opposition has created in our community, and our community will be stronger and united again.”

But the fight’s not completely over for the ICM.  It serves the needs of a growing congregation — and that means expansion. It recently applied for permission to build a cemetery on its premises, and its opponents wasted no time registering their objections. They’ve organized a campaign to overturn the Rutherford County Board of Zoning Appeals’ vote to approve the burial site.

Although they claim to be concerned about the cemetery’s potential effects on groundwater and local traffic, they’ve resurrected the debunked arguments that characterized the fight against the mosque’s very existence. Representatives of right-wing groups have swarmed county hearings on the proposal, arguing again that Islam is a political movement, not a religion.

That argument is unlikely to succeed, given its clear basis in anti-Muslim prejudice. There’s no rational reason to deny the ICM’s request for a cemetery, just as there was no rational reason to deny local Muslims permission to build the ICM itself. By any reasonable standard, Islam is a religion. As a religion, it is entitled to protection under the First Amendment.

Perhaps we ought to thank the ICM’s opponents for providing the country with such a terrific example of the First Amendment’s importance to the principle of religious liberty. Time and again, the courts have ruled that Muslims, like all people of faith (including non-theists) have a right to the free expression of their deeply held personal beliefs.

The Supreme Court made the right call. The ludicrous notion that the Muslim Brotherhood is intent on establishing Islamic rule in Murfreesboro, Tenn., doesn’t deserve another day in court.