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Trial begins in suit against proposed US mosque

Trial begins in lawsuit against proposed mosque in Tennessee By The Associated Press

MURFREESBORO, Tennessee (AP) ' Opponents of a proposed mosque in Tennessee will make their case Wednesday in a lawsuit they have used as a platform to broadcast their objections to Islam.

The mosque is among a handful of Muslim projects in the U.S. that hit a swell of conservative opposition during a controversy over a plan to build a Muslim community center near the site of the Sept. 11 attacks in New York.

Plaintiffs in the Tennessee case want to void a May 2010 planning meeting in which the Rutherford County Planning Commission approved the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro's site plan. Plaintiffs claim the public was not adequately notified ahead of time.

Voiding the meeting would rescind the approval, forcing mosque members to seek new approval in a climate made hostile by nearly two years of plaintiffs' unsubstantiated claims that members have ties to terrorists.

Plaintiffs have also claimed that Islam is not a religion and doesn't deserve First Amendment protections. That claim prompted the intervention of local U.S. Attorney Jerry Martin, whose office filed a brief confirming that Islam is a recognized religion. Martin said at the time that to suggest otherwise was "quite simply ridiculous."

The only issues to be argued at trial relate to whether there was sufficient public notice for the meeting. Because the Islamic Center itself is not named as a defendant, mosque members have not been able to defend themselves against the accusations in court.

Saleh Sbenaty, a mosque spokesman and a professor of engineering at Middle Tennessee State University, said there has been a mosque in Murfreesboro for over 30 years, but no one considered it a threat until this controversy erupted. Local Muslims want to build a new mosque because they have outgrown their current space in an office complex.

Sbenaty, who is originally from Syria, said the constant attacks have been draining.

"I left my country over 30 years ago to get my freedom over here, and now that's being threatened," he said. "My First Amendment rights are under fire."

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