By Bob Allen, Associated Baptist Press

More than 100 religious leaders, including the head of the Baptist Joint Committee, signed an open letter July 18 voicing support for a Tennessee mosque asking a federal judge to permit use of its newly built building to celebrate Ramadan, which began July 19.

Brent Walker of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and Wake Forest Divinity School professor Melissa Rogers were among signers of a letter drafted by The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty on behalf of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro. Since 2010 the ICM has endured vandalism, arson, bomb threats and legal challenges to its effort to relocate from an undersized office building it has used as a house of worship for decades to a new multi-acre site located nearby.

The Becket Fund, a nonprofit, public interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions, also filed a request for a temporary restraining order asking the U.S. District Court in Nashville to allow the Islamic Center to open its doors despite a local judge’s recent ruling that a county planning commission must vote a second time on a building permit it approved without proper notification under Tennessee’s open meetings law.

The brief argues that the ruling discriminates against the Muslim community by deeming it more controversial than other religions in the community.

“No congregation should have its right of religious liberty curtailed solely because some of its neighbors disapprove of its religious beliefs,” said Luke Goodrich, deputy general counsel at the Becket Fund.

The open letter decried harassment of the Islamic center and the frequent use of “Sharia” rhetoric to sensationalize the controversy. Opponents to the site plan, a megachurch-style campus with multiple buildings and ball fields, question how a relatively small congregation could afford such a project without outside funding, and they have alleged that members of the ICM board have ties to terrorists, a charge repeatedly denied by local Muslims.

“We emphatically support the right of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro — on an equal basis with any other type of religious congregation — to build a house of worship in the City of Murfreesboro and to use its own property for religious exercise,” the letter said. “Mosques must be respected and honored just as churches must be respected and honored.”

“When the liberty of one faith is abridged, the liberty of all faiths — and all citizens — is threatened,” the letter concluded. “Therefore, we stand united in our dedication to the First Amendment, the Constitution and the inalienable right of religious liberty for all.”

From the July/August 2012 Report from the Capital. Click here for the next article.