Opponents of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro’s (ICM) 52,000 square foot facility, consisting of a mosque and spaces for religious education, counseling, and other activities, on a 15-acre parcel in a residential district are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the decision of the Tennessee Appellate Court upholding the Rutherford County Regional Planning Commission’s approval of the mosque site plan (read our prior post here). They argue that the ICM supports terrorists, including Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Supreme Court should consider the case to decide whether the activities of a religious organization with ties to terrorism qualifies as “religious exercise” under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). They also contend that the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) federal lawsuit brought during the pendency of the state court case, in which the federal court found that the state court decision violates RLUIPA, violates the Rooker-Feldman Doctrine, which bars federal courts from reviewing decisions of state courts (read our post about the federal lawsuit here).
The case began in state court when the mosque opponents sued the Planning Commission’s approval of the site plan application on the grounds that notice for the meeting violated Tennessee’s Open Meetings Act (OMA). The trial court agreed and ruled that the site plan approval was void due to a violation of the OMA in light of “the significance of the matters decided and the overall general interest of the community as a whole,” and evidence that “interested public officials did not know of the issue.” The DOJ filed a friend of the court brief in the state court matter, contending that RLUIPA justified the site plan approval.
After the Planning Commission filed an appeal of the trial court decision, construction of the mosque was completed, but the County refused to issue ICM a certificate of occupancy for the mosque based on the trial court’s ruling. In response, the DOJ sued Rutherford County in federal court – United States of America v. Rutherford County, TN, No. NO. 3:12-0737 (D. Tenn. 2012), and obtained a temporary restraining order to expedite issuance of the certificate of occupancy on the District Court’s finding that the state court decision violated RLUIPA: “Compliance with the State Court’s Orders imposes a heightened notice requirement regarding the mosque which substantially burdens the Islamic Center’s free exercise of religion without a compelling governmental interest” (read the decision here).
When the trial court received word of the Federal District Court’s decision, it stayed all orders it had previously entered:
This cause came on to be further considered by the Court on this the 19th day of July, 2012, upon the entire file in this cause and upon finding by the Court that a Federal District Court has determined to exercise jurisdiction over the matters contained herein, and, under the doctrine of federal preemption, this Court finds that all orders of this Court should be stayed indefinitely to the extent that our orders are at variance with the orders of the Federal Court.
The Tennessee Appellate Court in Fisher v. Rutherford County Regional Planning Commission, No. 10cv1443 (May 29, 2013), reversed the trial court’s decision. It found that the Planning Commission complied with the OMA, but declined to consider RLUIPA in light of this determination. The Appellate Court also upheld the trial court’s decision to exclude mosque opponent witnesses, John Guandolo, a former FBI agent, and Stephen Coughlin, a former Pentagon advisor. The mosque opponents sought their testimony about “the Sharia-Jihad risks of the ICM” to prove that notice of the meeting to consider the site plan was inadequate, since the alleged terrorist threat was an issue of great public importance. The Appellate Court disagreed, and the Tennessee Supreme Court declined to review the decision.
Now, the mosque opponents have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to decide if notice was adequate in light of the terrorist threat; if the District Court’s alleged review of the state court decision violated the Rooker-Feldman Doctrine; and whether RLUIPA can protect Islamic centers that promote and condone illegal terrorist activities that are not “religious exercise.” They are also asking the Court to resolve the alleged conflict among federal courts’ interpretation of what constitutes a “substantial burden” under RLUIPA. You can read their brief here.
The Planning Commission responded last month. It argues that the Rooker-Feldman Doctrine was not violated because the DOJ was never a party to the state court proceeding, but instead filed a friend of the court brief alleging a violation of RLUIPA. The Planning Commission states that because the Appellate Court never considered RLUIPA in reaching its conclusion, it is not proper for the High Court to do so now: “The Court of Appeals did not conclude there was a RLUIPA violation or even rely on RLUIPA in drawing its conclusions. Thus, for the Petitioners to attempt to intermingle the separate distinct federal court case with the state case is error.” Finally, it claims that notice of the site plan meeting fully complied with the OMA.
The Supreme Court docket indicates that the briefs in this matter have been distributed for a May 29, 2014 conference. Until then, you can read our post about an Eighth Circuit decision discussing the scope of First Amendment religious protection as it relates to threat of injury/harm.