NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A new mosque in Tennessee that had been the subject of a lawsuit, arson, vandalism and a bomb threat will open for prayers for the first time on Friday.
Islamic Center of Murfreesboro board member Saleh Sbenaty said Tuesday that Rutherford County officials issued a temporary occupancy permit that will allow use of the building while the final permit is pending.
Construction was nearly shut down after a Rutherford County judge ruled in May that the meeting where mosque construction was approved was not sufficiently advertised to the public.
Last month, federal prosecutors stepped in to protect the religious liberty of mosque members. U.S. Attorney Jerry Martin argued the county judge had illegally created a separate "mosque standard" for public notice that only applied to the Islamic center.
A federal judge ruled in favor of the mosque, allowing construction and permitting to move ahead. The temporary permit is good until mid-October and will allow contractors time to complete the landscaping and some other last details.
"We're thrilled," board member Saleh Sbenaty said on Tuesday after learning the permit was forthcoming. "We hope everybody will be as happy and thrilled as we are."
The new 12,000-square-foot mosque replaces an existing 2,100-square-foot building that serves about 250 local families and many Muslim students attending Middle Tennessee State University. Worshippers regularly have to stand in the parking lot during prayers because the current space is too small.
Although Muslims have worshipped at the existing mosque for years, protests erupted shortly after plans for the new mosque were approved in May 2010.
Opponents spent two years in court trying to force the county to halt construction. Attorneys for the opposition claimed that Islam is not a valid religion and that mosque members were part of a plot to overthrow the U.S. constitution and replace it with Islamic law. Those claims were thrown out by the local judge.
In an email on Tuesday, lead plaintiff Kevin Fisher wrote, "History will one day judge whether we were wrong about this mosque, or whether we were right all along."
Sbenaty said mosque leaders have met with some of their opponents over the past two years.
"We tried to calm their fears, but they believe at heart that we are here to do evil things," he said. "...We're hoping this will go down with time, but it's going to take a while."