Congressman Complains That Religious Freedom Law Allowed Mosque To Build A Cemetery

Rep. Scott DesJarlais (center) CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ERIK SCHELZIG
Rep. Scott DesJarlais (center) CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ERIK SCHELZIG

A Tennessee congressman recently called it “unfortunate” that state laws allowed a local mosque — a victim of arson that gained national attention several years ago — to build a new cemetery on its grounds.

Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-TN) took to Facebook last Friday to inform his constituents that he had heard their concerns about the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro being permitted to construct a cemetery on its grounds loud and clear and shared their worries.

“Friends, I have received numerous calls over the last couple of weeks regarding the Murfreesboro mosque cemetery,” DesJarlais wrote. “Although this is a state issue, I am deeply concerned over the impact it might have on our community.”

The issue DesJarlais was referring to was the decision from the Rutherford County Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) at the beginning of the month to approve the Islamic Center’s request to construct a cemetery on its grounds. The decision had been deferred from December while the mosque was required to provide outside analysis on what impact the new burial site — which would follow Muslim customs — would have on the community. In the end, the approval was granted by a vote of 3–2, along with stipulations that the Center keep records of the burial locations and that the permit shall expire in the event the property is sold for a non-religious use.


While members of the mosque celebrated the decision, DesJarlais believes that the BZA’s approval could have been withheld if only the state legislature had not passed a law protecting religious freedom. “Unfortunately the Tennessee Religious Freedom Act, passed by the TN General Assembly, may have played a key role in allowing this cemetery to be approved,” the two-term representative wrote. “There is a difference between legislation that would protect our religious freedoms and legislation that would allow for the circumvention of laws that other organizations comply with on a daily basis.”

DesJarlais was referring to Tennessee’s passage of the Tennessee Religious Freedom Act in 2009, a bill which provides that “no government entity shall substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.” The Republican’s newfound opposition to the bill was seen as surprising to Saleh Sbenaty, a board member of the Murfreesboro mosque. “Republicans in particular call for smaller government and the local government to manage itself,” she told to The Daily News Journal. “So now here he is interfering with a local process that has been following all rules and regulations […] There are 514 cemeteries in Rutherford County. None of them have gone through the scrutiny we have gone through.”

“So why should this be an issue to begin with?” she continued. “Mr. DesJarlais should focus on more important issues, such as education, more jobs, the economy and bringing support to Tennessee from the federal government.”

According to the BZA chairman Zane Cantrell, the decision from DesJarlais to strike out against the mosque on Facebook is a purely political move. “Obviously DesJarlais is desperate to get votes, especially in Rutherford County,” Cantrell, who supports a state senator running for DesJarlais’ seat, told The Daily News Journal. “I can’t imagine who would vote for DesJarlais over Jim Tracy. DesJarlais is desperate. He sees he’s losing the battle to Jim Tracy, and he’s doing something to call attention to himself.”

The mosque at the center of the controversy first gained widespread attention when residents attempted to block its construction, going so far as to set the site on fire. The mosque only managed to complete construction and open after a federal judge ordered residents to stand aside. The Murfreesburo site was just one of several Islamic centers in Tennessee subjected to arson and vandalism over the past five years.