The Justice Department announced today that it has filed a federal lawsuit against Rutherford County, Tenn., alleging that the county violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) when, in compliance with a state chancery court ruling, it refused to process or issue a certificate of occupancy to the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro for a recently constructed mosque. The department’s complaint states that a certificate of occupancy is needed immediately so that the Islamic Center can hold worship services at the new facility during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which begins at sundown on July 19.
The lawsuit, filed today in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, alleges that the county’s refusal came as a result of a recent state chancery court order last month, which, acting in response to a motion brought by individuals opposed to the mosque, enjoined the county from processing or issuing a certificate. The chancery court ruled that the county had provided insufficient public notice prior to the hearing at which the county approved the mosque’s site-plan. The chancery court imposed a heightened notice requirement on the mosque, one not imposed on other religious or secular organizations.
“Our nation was founded on bedrock principles of religious liberty. The Department of Justice will continue to vigorously enforce civil rights laws that protect religious freedom,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “When a faith community follows the rules, as the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro has done in seeking to construct its place of worship, it is impermissible to change the rules in a discriminatory way that prevents people of faith from exercising their fundamental right to worship.”
“The United States Attorney’s Office will zealously protect every citizen’s right to worship and assemble,” said Jerry E. Martin, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee. “If we do not protect the rights of these congregants in Rutherford County, then the rights of all people are endangered and diminished.”
The government’s complaint seeks a court order requiring the county to act promptly on the Islamic Center’s application for a certificate of occupancy despite the chancery court’s injunction.
The case began when the Islamic Center, which has been operating in Rutherford County since 1982, sought to construct a new mosque for its growing congregation. In 2009, it purchased land for that purpose on Veals Road in Rutherford County and, in compliance with the county’s zoning regulation, subsequently applied for site-plan approval. After considering the proposal at a regularly scheduled, advertised meeting, the county approved the site plan. Following the county’s approval, opponents of the mosque filed a lawsuit in state court seeking to stop construction. Ultimately, with the exception of the plaintiffs’ public-notice claim, the chancery court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims.
RLUIPA prohibits religious discrimination in land use and zoning decisions. Persons who believe that they been subjected to religious discrimination in land use or zoning may contact the Housing and Civil Enforcement Section of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division at 1-800-896-7743. Additional information about the Justice Department’s efforts to combat religious discrimination may be found at www.justice.gov/crt/spec_topics/religiousdiscrimination/.
The complaint is an allegation of unlawful conduct. The allegations must be proven in federal court.