As ThinkProgress has previously noted, conservatives have for months led a hateful campaign against the expansion of a local Islamic center and mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. This campaign has been endorsed by high-ranking Republicans such as the state’s Lt. Governor, Ron Ramsey, who last month, wondered aloud whether Islam was a religion or a “cult.” The center was even the target of an arson attack in August.
Mosque opponents have turned to the legal system to bring a lawsuit against its founders, seeking an injuction to stop the construction. Now, Joe Brandon Jr., the lawyer for the opponents, argued in court during a recent appearance that stopping the expansion of the mosque would not violate of the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of religion because Islam isn’t a religious faith but rather a seditious movement seeking to impose “Sharia law” on the United States:
Mosque opponents say that Islam is not a real religion. They argued in a Rutherford County courthouse last week that the world’s second-largest faith, with its 1.6 billion followers, is actually a political movement.
Opponents say local Muslims want to replace the Constitution with an Islamic legal code called Shariah law. Joe Brandon Jr., a Smyrna,, Tenn., lawyer representing a group of mosque opponents, argued that the proposed mosque is not a house of worship. He said the Rutherford County Planning Commission erred when it approved the mosque. Brandon wants an injunction stopping the mosque. “Shariah law is pure sedition,” said Brandon in his opening statement Monday.
In stoking fears of “Sharia law,” Brandon Jr. is taking his lead from former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who just last month called for a federal ban on the non-existent threat of Sharia being imposed on the United States.
Yet the lawyer’s attempt to de-legimitize the Islamic faith and portray it as a totalitarian ideology seeking to take over the country is failing to win over even fellow conservatives. John Whitehead, “president of the Rutherford Institute, a conservative religious liberty group,” told The Tennessean that Islam meets the dozen criteria that the IRS sets out for what defines religious status for an organization. “I can guarantee you if they go to people who are Muslim, their beliefs will be very sincere,” Whitehead said. Mat Staver, “chairman of the First Amendment advocacy group Liberty Counsel and dean of Liberty University School of Law,” warned that if the mosque’s opponents succeed in getting the expansion stopped by deligimitizing Islam as a religion, churches could be the next target of legal action. “”There will be losers in this, and one of them could be you,” he said, referencing Christians opposed to the mosque.
It should be noted that even if the patrons of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro weren’t worshippers of a faith but rather political activists — and it goes without saying that they are not — they would still have the constitutional right to do that. The first amendment prevents the government from passing any law “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” Thanks to those rights, all manner of odious speech is constitutionally protected, just like the offensive language being used by the mosque’s opponents.
ThinkProgress editor-in-chief Faiz Shakir will be moderating the CAP event “Challenging Islamophobia: The Role of Civic and Faith Groups in Combating Anti-Muslim Hate Speech and Crimes” from 12–2 pm EST today. Watch the event livestreaming here.