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Parking Lot Prayer: Revisiting the Murfreesboro Mosque on the Eve of Ramadan

Heather L. Weaver,
Senior Staff Attorney,
ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief
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July 18, 2012

If the freedom to worship is a fundamental right under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment – and it unquestionably is – then it follows that access to a suitable place of worship is also essential. Congress recognized as much in 2000 when it passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Act (RLUIPA) to redress persistent discrimination against religious institutions in the local zoning context. But if you were to visit the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro in Tennessee during Ramadan, which starts tomorrow night, you would be hard pressed to find evidence of these legal protections.

Instead, you would witness a facility so filled to capacity that many congregants are forced to pray outside in the parking lot because there is simply no room to safely accommodate them. And, were you to visit the site of the Islamic Center’s new mosque across town, you would see that this newly constructed, nearly finished facility, which would substantially ease these burdens and allow everyone to worship comfortably and inside, sits empty because of a protracted, two-year campaign by anti-Muslim groups.

In May 2010, the Rutherford County Regional Planning Commission approved plans for the new Islamic Center—a spiritual home to hundreds of Tennessee Muslim families. Since then, a small group of opponents, motivated by anti-Muslim prejudice, has tried to stop the construction of the mosque. They argue, among other bigoted claims, that Muslims “are trying to kill us,” that the mosque would become a terrorist training center, and that Islam —one of the oldest and largest faiths in the world – is not even a religion and does not deserve any protection under the U.S. Constitution. Along the way, the Islamic Center has received bomb threats, and the new site has been vandalized and construction equipment set on fire.

As a leading voice for religious freedom, the ACLU has vigorously opposed xenophobic efforts to obstruct Muslim congregations from building or renovating mosques and Islamic centers. When we learned of the events in Murfreesboro, the ACLU and ACLU of Tennessee immediately reached out to the congregation and its leaders to offer our support. Unfortunately, two years later, the Islamic Center’s ordeal is unresolved. That’s why the ACLU and ACLU of Tennessee joined with a broad coalition of religious groups and civil liberties advocates to issue a statement today, expressing our support for congregants of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, as they face celebrating yet another Ramadan in these trying circumstances.

The statement comes in the wake of a ruling by the Tennessee Chancery Court that prohibits the mosque from using its new facility until the County Commission corrects certain Open Meetings Act violations that occurred before the official vote to approve the new mosque. The Chancery Court’s decision prompted the Islamic Center to file suit today in federal district court, arguing that the ruling violates the mosque’s rights under RLUIPA, the Free Exercise Clause, and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Islamic Center has asked the federal court to issue a temporary restraining order allowing congregants to hold worship services at their new facility starting tomorrow evening, when Ramadan commences.

We believe, of course, that local commissions must comply with the transparency and notice requirements of state law. But the fundamental right to worship should not be denied and, as the statement released today explains, “[n]o congregation should have its right of religious liberty curtailed solely because some of its neighbors disapprove of its religious beliefs.” We hope that the court will grant the Islamic Center’s request for a restraining order and that the only people in the parking lot this Ramadan will be those parking their cars.

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