Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Closing arguments in mosque trial begin Wednesday


Both sides in a long battle over the construction of a mosque near Murfreesboro wrapped up their case Monday and will make closing arguments Wednesday.

The county's defense called land-use and zoning expert George Dean to the stand to explain local ordinances to the court. Dean also told the court a recent state law makes it even more difficult to deny any religion protected uses of right with land use.

"The Tennessee Religious Freedom Act is more protective of religious entities than the federal law," Dean said. "I believe our act is more aggressive toward protecting religious entities."

TNRFA was passed last year and championed by conservatives as a way to ease development hurdles for churches, including public hearings and notices. Under the United States Constitution, these new state protections now apply to all religions within the state.

"It seems to me the planning commission did exactly what they were supposed to do," Dean said.

Plaintiffs in the case filed suit in September against the county after the planning commission's May 24 conditional approval of site plans for a 52,000-square-foot Islamic Center of Murfreesboro at 2700 Veals Rd.

Plaintiffs argue Islam is not a religion and that the doctrine of Sharia law is a level of seditious threat that planning commissioners should weigh when considering site plans of religious institutions.

"Do we really want a planning commission deciding what is and isn't a religious exercise?" Dean asked plaintiff attorney Tom Smith. "Even if a member of a church is a criminal, it doesn't mean its occupancy permit is revoked from that church."

Several witnesses over eight days of testimony spread over three months expressed fear that area Muslims would take over local government and force Sharia law on the community. They also expressed fear the new Islamic center would train terrorists who they feared would kill them.

Plaintiff's witnesses, such as Frank Gaffney, former deputy assistant secretary of defense under President Ronald Reagan, shared grim views of Muslims in general, but rarely addressed the fairness of local land use and zoning ordinances. Most plaintiff witnesses did not view Islam as a credible religion.

Other witnesses admitted on the stand they regularly met together with plaintiff attorneys and raised money for their case and paid for books and DVDs marketed to them by anti-Muslim groups. One woman recounted how she could only afford to give $100 because her husband recently lost his job.

Throughout the case, plaintiff's Attorney Joe Brandon Jr. sustained multiple objections for irrelevance, hearsay and badgering witnesses, sometimes his own witnesses. Brandon's in-court characterizations of the Islamic faith and local residents who practice it made Brandon a national spectacle and subject of ridicule on MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann.

Plaintiffs are asking Chancery Judge Robert Corlew to stop the construction of the mosque to protect the community from Islam. Closing arguments resume at 8:30 Wednesday morning.

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