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A Tennessee mosque, a good American story

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Charles C. Haynes
December 31, 2010

The No. 1 religion story of 2010 was the emotional, often ugly debate over plans for an Islamic center two blocks from Ground Zero in Manhattan, according to Religion Newswriters Association members—and just about everyone else making a list.


Not far behind was the media-driven obsession with the Florida pastor who got more than his 15 minutes of fame by dangling the threat of Quran-burning before eager reporters camped outside his church.


But to really understand the growing fear of Islam in America in 2010—and public reaction to it—we should move beyond the sensational and take a closer look at the lesser-known but more instructive mosque-building controversies in local communities, especially the yearlong fight in Murfreesboro, Tenn.


The saga in Murfreesboro, with its protests, counter-protests and courtroom battles, got less attention than the emotional fight near Ground Zero. But it’s a good case study for how religious freedom is playing out these days in local communities across the country.


It all started last January when vandals sprayed “not here” on a sign promoting the future Islamic center on property near Murfreesboro in Rutherford County. Despite this and other signs of growing community resistance to the planned mosque, the county’s board of commissioners approved the site for construction in May.


In June, 400 mosque opponents marched to the county courthouse, waving American flags, carrying placards condemning Islam and shouting slogans such as “Islam is fascism.” Islam isn’t a religion, protesters told reporters, it’s a political movement bent on destroying the Constitution.


If county officials had backed down or if local Muslims had canceled their plans, then this would have been a bad American story—echoing earlier ones from our history when minority religions were intimidated and persecuted. Muslims are frequent targets today, but in the past Quakers were lynched, Baptists jailed, Catholic institutions burned, Jews ostracized, Mormons attacked, Jehovah’s Witnesses tarred and feathered—and the list goes on.


We have learned the hard way that constitutional guarantees of religious freedom mean little when the majority succeeds in demonizing a minority and public officials are either complicit or turn a blind eye.


Fortunately, Murfreesboro turned out to be a good American story. County officials held firm. Local citizens spoke up for their Muslim neighbors. On the day of the anti-mosque march, a quickly formed group called Middle Tennesseans for Religious Freedom organized a counter-protest, waving signs in support of religious freedom for all—and belting out the National Anthem with special emphasis on “land of the free and home of the brave.”


Undeterred, mosque opponents went to county court to stop the Islamic center. Although the case was supposed to be about whether the county had followed proper procedures, the anti-mosque side spent days in court arguing that Islam is “not a religion” and warning that the proposed center could become a hotbed of terrorism.


National religious leaders—Catholic, Protestant, evangelical, Jewish and Muslim—stepped up to defend Muslims’ right to build houses of worship. They formed the Interfaith Coalition on Mosques in September to help Muslims confronting opposition to the legal building of mosques, and immediately filed a brief in support of Murfreesboro’s Muslim Americans.


Then the U.S. Department of Justice weighed in, asking the court to reject the bogus argument that “Islam is not a religion”—and arguing that county officials were upholding the law by treating mosques as they treated churches and other places of worship.


On Nov. 17, the court ruled that construction of the Islamic center in Murfreesboro could proceed.


The outcome in Murfreesboro serves as a powerful reminder that First Amendment principles are alive and well in the United States. Despite outbreaks of nativism, persistent anti-Semitism and pockets of intolerance, I believe that most Americans, including most religious and political leaders, remain strongly committed to defending religious freedom—not just for themselves but for people of all faiths and none.


On that hopeful note for religious freedom in 2011, I wish all of my readers a very happy New Year.


Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C., 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: chaynes@freedomforum.org.

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