A federal judge has ordered a Tennessee county to move ahead with opening a Muslim congregation's newly built mosque after a two-year fight by opponents.
The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro sued Rutherford County on Wednesday and asked District Judge Todd Campbell for an emergency order to let worshippers into the building before the holy month of Ramadan starts at sundown Thursday.
Federal prosecutors then stepped in with a similar lawsuit.
In May, a Rutherford County judge overturned the county's approval of the mosque construction. This month he ordered the county not to issue an occupancy permit for the 12,000-square-foot building.
"The county wrote [The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro] a letter saying in light of the chancery court's decision, ordering the county not to engage in that process they could not go forward," U.S. Attorney Jerry Martin said.
Rutherford County, who was the defendant in the state case, told the federal judge they did not have an opposition to the temporary restraining order.
"We feel like we are in between a rock and a hard place," Rutherford County attorney Jim Cope told Judge Campbell.
Campbell ordered the county to move ahead on approving the mosque for use, although it wasn't immediately clear if that could happen by Thursday.
"We wanted to make sure we followed the process correctly," Cope said following the ruling. "We believe we did and we have been vindicated by the decision today of the court."
He continued, "In fact, the notice the state court wanted us to issue did not meet applicable law and in fact violated religious liberties."
In court, Judge Campbell said the heighten notice requirement that the state court said was required put a substantial burden on the exercise of the ICM members' religion.
The Imam Dr. Ossama Bahloul said the ruling proved the constitution protected the mosque members' right to worship in their new building.
"The Islamic Center and our people are proud of being members of Rutherford County and of being part of this wonderful country," he said. "I want to say to everyone, even the people in the opposition, we love you all and we are your neighbor."
He continued, "The concept of loving your neighbor is a concept existing in any religion."
County inspectors are expected to make final inspections on Thursday. The county attorney could not say what time the inspections would begin.
Joe Brandon Jr., the attorney for the group of Rutherford County citizens who tried to stop the mosque construction, told Nashville's News 2 Thursday, "We were robbed by the federal government."
Brandon added that he is "exploring his options" with his clients, adding, "We find the federal court ruling offensive."