Muslim congregation may use new mosque for Ramadan, judge rules
NASHVILLE, Tennessee (Reuters) - A federal judge on Wednesday ordered a Tennessee county to conduct a building inspection that is expected to clear the way for a new Muslim mosque near Nashville to open for Ramadan observances, which begin at sundown Thursday.
District Chief Judge Todd Campbell granted a temporary restraining order - sought by the Islamic Center and backed by a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit - to allow worshipers to begin using the new facility in Murfreesboro, Tennessee after the building inspection later on Wednesday.
A county judge in May had barred the congregation from using the nearly-complete facility because he said the local planning commission had not given the public enough notice before it met in 2010 to grant a building permit.
The imam of the mosque, Ossama Bahloul, hailed the court decision. "We look forward to celebrating Ramadan with our neighbors," he said.
The month of Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and features fasting from dawn to sunset each day.
The Tennessee mosque still will be subject to a county inspection before it can be used for Ramadan, said Luke Goodrich, the Washington-based attorney who represented the mosque.
"If everything is in order, the mosque can use the new building for worship by the start of Ramadan," he said.
"It's a great victory for the Constitution and a great victory for people of all faiths," said Goodrich, who expected the mosque would pass the inspection and be able to open its doors.
But the ruling was only a temporary reprieve because another court hearing on the matter will be held in 14 days.
The court battle was part of a long-running local fight over the mosque in Murfreesboro, about 30 miles from Nashville.
Since plans for the new Islamic Center to replace a 30-year-old facility were approved by local authorities in 2010, opponents have tried to stop it. They have argued that Islam is not a religion protected by the U.S. Constitution, that the Islamic center would promote Sharia law, and that it would have unspecified "terrorist" ties.
On behalf of the congregation, Goodrich, of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington-based non-profit law firm, filed the request on Wednesday for a court order to allow the mosque to be used. The Justice Department filed its suit focusing on religious freedom at the same time.
"We have avoided litigation as long as we possibly could," said Bahloul, the imam. "But this lawsuit appeared to be the only way we could use our new mosque by the start of Ramadan."
An attorney for the mosque opponents could not be reached for comment.
(Editing by Greg McCune)