In Murfreesboro, Tennessee Islamophobia Trumps the U.S. Constitution - updated 8/3/13

In Murfreesboro, Tennessee Islamophobia Trumps the U.S. Constitution

by Sheila Musaji

In Murfreesboro, Tennessee, the long struggle to build and open a mosque is almost over.  After three years of legal battles, vandalism, threats and arson, the mosque is almost completed and ready to open.  And now, we see the face of the bigotry underlying the mosque opposition come to the surface in Murfreesboro’s newest battle against “creeping Sharia”, this time in the public schools.

As reported by Asma Uddin and Ashley McGuire, the battle to stop the mosque from being built took some strange twists:

But in a novel twist, the plaintiffs also made the claim that Islam, the world’s second largest religion, is in fact, not a religion, and thus undeserving of First Amendment religious freedom protections.  The argument went like this: because Islam is not a religion but a political ideology and the mosque would be used for political not religious assembly, the mosque is not subject to the same zoning treatment as churches.

The move against the mosque is part of the larger anti-sharia movement in the state and across the nation, with a prominent leader of the movement, Frank Gaffney, introduced as an “Islam expert” at trial. The anti-sharia and anti-mosque protests culminated in numerous acts of anti-Muslim animus during the course of the mosque construction. For example, a large construction vehicle at the construction site was intentionally set on fire. There was even a bomb threat, which resulted in a federal indictment.  ...  The Murfreesboro mosque case exemplifies how the winds can blow when one group who cares little for the religious freedom of another takes action.

Over the past few years, many of the key players of the Islamophobia Industry visited Murfreesboro, and spoke at local venues.  According to Bob Smietana of The Tennessean, “Robert Spencer, Brigitte Gabriel of Act for America, Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy, and Bill French, a former Tennessee State University professor who goes by the pseudonym Bill Warner” have all been featured speakers.  It is the fear mongering by this group that has led to the newest strange twist in Murfreesboro’s concern about their fellow Muslim citizens.  This already developed idea that somehow Muslims are not protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution plays out in the current drama over Islam in the public schools.

Bob Smietana notes

They’ve persuaded activists like Pete Doughtie to see almost every action by Muslims with suspicion.  So when a Muslim student asks for permission to pray at school — which is allowed under the First Amendment — critics see it as an attempt to infiltrate schools with Islam.  ...  The latest target for mosque foes is the school system.

Currently one Muslim student at Central Magnet School in Murfreesboro is allowed to pray in an empty room during lunch, said James Evans, spokesman for Rutherford County Schools.  Evans pointed out that Christian students hold a lunch Bible study at the same school and that a Christian club there called First Priority has several hundred members.

Doughtie said Muslim students should assimilate to Christian culture. Rather than allowing Muslim students to pray, he’d rather see all students take part in a Christian prayer each day at school.  “We have been a strong Christian country, and if we don’t get back to it, the whole face of this nation is going to change,” Doughtie said.

...  An evangelical Christian pastor, Darrel Whaley believes Muslims will go to hell if they don’t leave their faith and become Christians.  He says that he’s not a bigot and doesn’t hate Muslims.  But he can’t stand their religion and will do whatever he can to limit the spread of Islam in Rutherford County and in the United States.  “We are not against Muslims praying in a mosque,” Whaley said. “We are against Islam.”

... In recent months, two bloggers with local ties have stirred up continued controversy. One is Eric Allen Bell, a former mosque supporter, and the other is Cathy Hinners, a retired police officer and Albany, N.Y., transplant.  Bell runs and, two sites that criticize Islam.

Hinners runs a site called the, which has been active in the recent school board controversy in Murfreesboro.  She has become a regular on conservative Michael DelGiorno’s talk radio show, warning of the threat of Islam.  Recently she appeared on DelGiorno’s show to complain that local Muslims were demanding special privileges at local schools.

At issue was a handout called “A Teacher’s Guide to Muslim Students,” which was emailed to the Rutherford County School Board in 2008 by a board member of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, as well as a cultural awareness training for teachers and administrators run by the Department of Justice in 2011.

School officials say they get information from different faith groups all the time. Their policy allows students to ask for religious accommodations.

But Hinners, who did not respond to requests for comment, and DelGiorno see the handout as a demand for special treatment. “They are not asking anymore,” Hinners said on the air. “They are telling you.”

Lobna “Luby” Ismail disagrees.  Ismail is the founder of Connecting Cultures, a company based in Silver Springs, Md., that led the training for Murfreesboro school officials. She said her company was asked to do the training because there were concerns that Muslim students had been bullied over the mosque controversy.  The training was designed to help create a safe environment for kids, she said.  “There were no demands for any accommodations,” she said

The pressure on the local school board from those who believed Muslims were demanding special accommodation was intense.  The Murfreesboro Post reported that more than 100 people showed up for a local board meeting to object to this supposed accommodation:

Administrators pushed back Thursday evening against recent allegations that the Rutherford County Board of Education has been approached about providing special accommodations to Muslim students.

“As a public school system, predominantly on an annual basis, we receive information from the Jewish and Christian communities, in addition to other groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, reminding us what students’ rights are,” said Don Odom, director of Rutherford County Schools. “That does not mean we plan to institute new policies and procedures,” he said.

In the article Religious Accommodation or Creeping Sharia? I discussed the hysteria over the school handout (led by Pamela Geller) and the request for a space to pray.  I noted

It is a simple guide for Muslim parents as to how to approach their child’s school to ask for religious accommodation for their own child - for example to have the day off school for a religious holiday, or to be excused from some strenuous activity during Ramadan.  And, what is the first thing that this guide tells parents - first know the law - “Knowing what laws and regulations govern the issue of religious accommodation is crucial before attempting to reach the right authorities. It is also important to understand what is defined as a “reasonable limit” on religious freedom.”

Good advice for all parents.  Actually, the issue of requesting religious accommodation comes up for members of many religious groups, not just Muslims.  And “reasonable accommodation” is a principle that is honored under the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.  The Anti Defamation League (ADL) also produces such a guide called Religion in the Public Schools  Geller and many other bigots who call themselves “patriots” need to do a remedial course in the Constitution.

...  Reasonable religious accommodation in the public sphere has existed for a very long time in the United States.  Here are just a few examples:

A federal judge ruled that the Indiana Department of Correction was violating the law by not offering kosher meals to prison inmates whose religious beliefs require it.   Indiana then approved serving Kosher meals to Jewish prisoners.

British Airways was challenged for stopping a Jewish worker from observing sabbath by making him work Saturdays

The D.C. Metropolitan Police Department is not only willing to make the appropriate religious accommodation for Sikhs, allowing their beards and turbans, but has actively encouraged Sikh Americans to become officers.

An Orthodox Jewish police detective was awarded a settlement of $350,000 from the Las Vegas police department to settle a lawsuit after he was prohibited from having a beard and wearing a yarmulke. 

A Jewish law student taking the Colorado bar exam discovered that the first day of the test was scheduled on Tisha B’av, a traditional day of observance and fasting, she asked the Board of Bar Examiners for an alternate test date.  She ultimately won this accommodation.

A unanimous ruling by the Illinois Supreme Court backed a Jewish only inheritance clause in the will of a Jewish couple.  The court said that they were within their rights to disinherit any grandchildren who married outside the faith. 

The state Corrections Department in Montpelier, Vermont agreed to pay $25,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by a Jewish former inmate who said he was denied traditional food including matzoh at Passover and was blocked from observing the holidays of his faith.  

Simran Preet Singh Lamba, a Sikh, became the first man in over 30 years to be allowed to wear his religiously mandated turban, beard and hear while serving in the Army.

Students at an Orthodox Jewish day school filed a religious discrimination complaint when the National High School Mock Trial was scheduled to be held on a Saturday.

A student at a Portland public school requested that the school make accommodations for students unable to attend finals on those days and that they consider Jewish holidays when planning future school year calendars.


Separation of Church and State is an important principle that must be defended.  However, requesting reasonable religious accommodation does not violate that separation.  The ADL publishes a First Amendment primer that includes this section on actual violations in public schools:

Blatant violations of church-state separation continue to take place in our public schools.  Among the more recent such violations have been the following:

In Alabama, a family of Jewish children was repeatedly harassed after complaining about the promotion of Christian beliefs in their public schools. One of the students was forced to write an essay on “Why Jesus Loves Me.” At a mandatory school assembly, a Christian minister condemned to hell all people who did not believe in Jesus Christ.

Elsewhere in Alabama, officials in the DeKalb County school system blatantly disobeyed a district court ruling that forbade religious activity in school such as the broadcast of Christian prayers over the school public address system and the distribution of Gideon Bibles on school property. The court has now been forced to issue an injunction to compel the schools to abide by its earlier ruling.

A Jewish student at a public school in Utah was required to sing religious songs and participate in Mormon religious worship activities as part of a choir class. After she voiced objections to these practices, the student was humiliated in class by the teacher and became the target of anti-Semitic harassment by her classmates.

Some otherwise well-intentioned advocates for school reform are promoting initiatives that would channel public funds to schools that engage in religious indoctrination. In their various forms—“vouchers,” “school choice,” “hope and opportunity scholarships”—these programs would force Americans to do something contrary to our very notion of democracy: to pay taxes to support the propagation of religious dogma.

...  These are the sorts of incidents that all who are genuinely concerned about separation of church and state, and religious freedom should be concerned about.  As citizens of a multi-cultural, multi-religious, multi-racial society, we must be concerned with protecting the rights of all citizens.  When the rights of any minority are threatened, the rights of the majority are also threatened.

In the article American Muslims must defend the Constitution of the United States, I wrote

America is a secular and democratic nation with a clearly marked wall between church and state (thank God!).  One of the reasons America has been a beacon to the world is the freedom that all Americans have to practice any (or no) religion.  As an American Muslim I don’t believe that America can be defined as anything but a secular democracy (secular meaning neutral towards religion, not devoid of religion or hostile to religion) in which all religions are free to worship.

I don’t want to see Shariah, or Biblical law, or any other religious law replace the Constitution, and I don’t want to see any kind of a theocracy in place based on any religion.  I agree with Rabbi Arthur Waskow that “When those who claim their path alone bespeaks God’s Will control the State to enforce their will as God’s, it is God Who suffers.”

There have been some who have suggested that because some Muslim majority countries do not allow the same freedoms to Christians and other minorities, therefore American Muslims should not be allowed the freedom to practice Islam, or that if they are “granted this privilege”, they should be grateful.  I am grateful to the founding fathers and generations of leaders who followed them for establishing and protecting a system that gives this right to all of us and who set up and maintained a wall between church and state so that no majority can ever be in a position to control or decide who does and doesn’t have the right to practice their religion.  I owe no gratitude to those who think that my freedom and rights as an American are something they can give or take away because this is “their country”.  My rights (and obligations) are granted to me by my citizenship.  This is “our country”, all of us.   Unless American Christians are to be held responsible for every country on earth with a Christian majority (for example Rwanda and Bosnia), then it is a little hypocritical to think that American Muslims have any control over what goes on in other countries.  Like any other American I may have an opinion about events in other countries and may even work to make that opinion known, but I have no control.  I am not responsible for what happens in other countries, and whether or not there are injustices in other countries why should that make it necessary for Americans to commit the same injustices in order to even the score.  I am an American citizen and a Muslim - and I have the right under the constitution to practice my religion (as does everyone else of every faith).  If some countries do not give the same rights to others, shame on them, but to think that this would justify removing my rights is nonsense.

The Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights (first ten amendments to the Constitution) are the foundation of this country.  They represent the ideal of America.  America is a multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-ethnic nation.   That’s a fact.   Members of many religious groups, races, nationalities, etc. are equally Americans, and none of them are going anywhere.  We are all in this together, and as Americans are all protected by the Constitution and Bill of Rights of the United States.   That is fortunate, and something we must all work together to protect, as it is obvious that some among us just ‘don’t get it’.  It is obvious that our religious communities differ from each other, and that each of us feels called to observe their own faith.  It should be possible to do this while recognizing that we do hold many values in common, and that we can build on these in order to work together for the common good.  We can be good Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, etc. and also be fellow citizens of this great nation.

If some start talking about this being a “Christian nation”, or a nation of any specific majority group, that is a direct attack on the first amendment.  The separation of church and state is a critical protection for all of us, without that we would have the rule of whatever religion happened to be in the majority at any particular time in history and that would lead to a tyranny of the majority.  Right now there are about 300 million people in the U.S.  About 51% of Americans are Protestants (with Southern Baptists the single largest group),  24% are Catholics, and the rest other religions, or no religion at all. 

The point is that things don’t remain the same.  If we begin the this is a “Christian country” game, is this based on who is in the majority?  If so, does this mean that we are a Protestant nation?  What will happen if the slender 51% majority margin shifts?  Since the Southern Baptists are the majority among the Protestants, does this mean that we are a Southern Baptist nation?  What would this mean for the majority and for all the minorities.  Those people who ‘don’t get the Constitution’ also must ‘not get history’ because history shows that this would mean the end of America as the land of the free.

Truly, the best protection for everyone is to maintain America as a secular democracy under the Constitution.  Anything else will lead inevitably to persecution and tyranny.

When people begin saying things like those quoted in the statements below, they really need to stop and think about what they are saying, and the rest of us need to listen to what they are saying and take them seriously, and counter their speech with more speech.

As soon as we begin to define ourselves in terms of any religion we limit the participation of others.  No matter who is in the majority, they do not own this nation, and every minority must have equal rights and status - otherwise this will no longer be America. 

It is often stated by bigots that American Muslims are some sort of a fifth colum in this country just waiting to implement Shariah law and destroy the Constitution.  Actually most American Muslims are only too aware of the freedoms they have in America.   I am sure that there may be some such deranged Muslims who would like to see the wall of separation come down, and they should either go back where they came from if they are immigrants, or if they were born here, they should make hijra (emigrate) to a predominantly Muslim country.  Whatever thought process, or lack thereof that these Muslims are following to come to this conclusion is deeply flawed, not only on an Islamic basis, but also on a common sense basis.  If you are 1% of the population of the nation, and you are claiming that your goal is to “fly an Islamic flag from the Whitehouse” or to “replace the Constitution with Sharia law”, that is like waving a red cloth in front of 100 angry bulls.  It is ridiculous, foolhardy, and dangerous, not just for yourself but for the entire Muslim community who will inevitably be accused of secretly sharing your view and will bear the brunt of any backlash resulting from your words or actions.  Only a desire for self-destruction could lead a person not to see that the Constitution of the U.S. is the only thing protecting the Muslim community as well as any other minority community.   If these Muslims stay here and continue with this sort of rhetoric, they will be resisted by all patriotic Americans.  However, they are not the only ones who ‘don’t get it’.

There have been a number of statements made, in too many cases by clergymen and politicians which make it very clear that there are some who don’t “hold these truths to be self evident” and need to be reminded that our freedom came at a price and must be defended by all of us.   NOTE:  see full article for many quotes showing a lack of understanding of the Constitution

To summarize the position of the Islamophobes, and those in Murfreesboro that they have influenced:

One Muslim student is allowed to pray in an empty room during lunch break.  Christian students already hold lunch Bible study, and have a Christian club at the same school.  The Muslim students should be forced to “assimilate to Christian culture” and take part in Christian prayer.  Accommodating the Christian students is reasonable because this is a “Christian country”, accommodating the Muslim students is a dangerous accommodation to “creeping Sharia”, and will lead ultimately to a Muslim takeover of “our country”.  If Muslims ask to have their Constitutional rights honored the same as everyone else’s, they are “demanding special treatment”.  Islam is not a religion like Christianity, and therefore the Constitution doesn’t apply to Muslims.  We have no problem with Muslims, we have a problem with Islam.

They are wrong on every count!

UPDATE 9/3/2012

Tennessee:  We don’t want to persecute Muslims, BUT… documents other Islamophobic causes in Tennessee:


In Somerville, Tennessee, plans to develop a Muslim cemetery brought protests that “the burial ground could become a staging ground for terrorists or spread disease from unembalmed bodies.”  One opponent of the cemetery said “Ladies and gentlemen, you may think this is far-fetched, but that is what the Jewish people thought when the Nazis started taking a small foothold, a little at a time, in their community.”  Actually, Muslim and Jewish burial customs are very similar, and there are already Jewish cemeteries in Tennessee. 

Blake Farmer, in an article on NPR Fears About Shariah Law Take Hold In Tennessee quotes Lee Douglas who helped draft a resolution criticizing the governor for hiring Samar Ali who is a Muslim as saying: “I don’t want anybody to persecute any religion including Islam, but we have a duty as Americans to understand that they intend to take us over and compel us to become Islamic,” Douglas says.  The First Amendment may provide the freedom to practice all religions, but, according to Douglas, the “government is showing a deference and is accommodating one single religion — Islam, Shariah.”  (see Islamic Sharia and Jewish Halakha Arbitration Courts for a discussion of this non-existent Sharia danger.)

Wow,  Tennessee has 60,000 Muslims out of a population of 6,403,353, which is 0.9%, not even 1% of the population.  Even if it were true (and it is not) that all of the 0.9% of Tennesseans who are Muslim wanted to take over the state and compel everyone to become Muslim, exactly how would any reasonable person think they were going to do that? 

Summing up:
— Less that 1% of the population that is Muslim is a danger and could take over?
— One Muslim child asking permission to pray by himself in an empty room at lunch time in a school in which group Bible studies are held by Christian students is a danger?
— Even dead Muslims buried in a cemetery are a danger?

The truth is that people who hold such views are bigots, but rather than just come out and say “I’m a bigot and I don’t like Muslims”, they attempt to justify their bigotry with such ridiculous rationalizations and justifications, and hide behind nonsense like “I don’t want to persecute any religion, BUT”.

If anyone should be worried it’s the less than 1% of the population who might be affected by that BUT.

UPDATE 6/8/2013

Freedom of speech under attack by Islamophobes in Tennessee discusses Spencer & Geller’s AFDI free speech demo in Tennessee which turned into a disgusting anti-Muslim spectacle. 

UPDATE 8/3/2013

The Murfreesboro Mosque saga never ends.  The Tennessean reports Murfreesboro mosque foes press delusional lawsuit:

Opponents of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro are taking their witch hunt to the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Note to the plaintiffs: Pitchforks and torches are not allowed in government buildings.

With a 49-page document filled with fabrications, this group hopes to persuade justices to hear its civil lawsuit, which claims that the mosque, which opened a year ago, is intended to teach and spread Shariah law in Tennessee.

The plaintiffs also would have you believe that the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, which for 30 years has been a house of worship in Murfreesboro (although in a much smaller facility), is somehow is connected to Muslim terrorist groups.

This farce of a lawsuit would be sad, really, except that the plaintiffs might convince some casual observers that there is some shred of truth in it. After all, they began their journey through the courts with an argument that at least appeared plausible: that perhaps the Rutherford County Planning Commission mishandled the zoning approval and notification process for the Islamic Center.

But when that turned out not to be the case, it was the mosque opponents’ last flirtation with reality.

One of the suggestions that lawyers for mosque opponents are making now is that the county should have “someone else take over” the year-old center. So, the plaintiffs’ response to the imaginary threat of Shariah law is to confiscate private property without cause, as the Nazi regime did in Germany?

The people behind this lawsuit are behaving in an offensive way to the decent, law-abiding people of Rutherford County, which includes whose who worship at the Islamic Center. And it should stop.

Plaintiffs insinuate that there are criminal activities taking place at the center. There has been not been even one criminal complaint against the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro in its 30 years. The only criminal act that has occurred was when someone vandalized the mosque construction site. That is the only terrorist activity taking place in Murfreesboro.

Plaintiffs have nothing to back up their paranoid allegations. The state Supreme Court should send them home empty-handed.

Originally published 8/5/2012