Tennessee Questioning in mosque case hinges on Islamic law

By Travis Loller

Associated Press Writer

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (AP) -- A lawyer for opponents of a proposed mosque in Murfreesboro veered away from the procedural issues at the heart of a legal challenge and peppered witnesses on Wednesday with questions about the religion Islam.

The attorney equated Islamic religious law with terrorism during a hearing and taunted a witness who said he believed Islam was a religion, in part, because it was defined as such by the federal government.

"Are you one of those people who believes everything the government says?" attorney Joe Brandon Jr. asked Rutherford County Commissioner Gary Farley. "Are you aware the government once said it was OK to own slaves?"

Plaintiffs who oppose the mosque want a temporary restraining order to block construction on the site. They claim county officials violated state law by failing to provide adequate notice of the meeting where the site plan was approved.

But many of Brandon's questions had nothing to do with procedural issues, and he repeatedly drew objections from lawyers for the county.

"Do you want to know about a direct connection between the Islamic Center and Sharia law, a.k.a. terrorism?" Brandon asked Farley.

Islamic religious law, or Sharia, is composed of core rules that most all Muslims recognize, though some interpret it to include rulings from religious scholars that are sometimes controversial. What many Muslims consider Sharia law is simply a code of conduct that's in line with traditional Western ideas of morality.

At one point during questioning, Brandon began asking whether Farley supported hanging up a whip in his house as a warning to his wife and then beating her with it.

Farley protested that he would never beat his wife.

County attorney Jim Cope objected to the question, saying, "This is a circus."

In response to one of Cope's objections, Chancellor Robert Corlew conceded that Brandon had not established any proof, in four days of testimony dragging over three weeks, that local Muslims were in any way a threat.

But the attorney asked similar questions of later witnesses, only posing his questions more hypothetically. He asked Commissioner Will Jordan whether groups that support sedition and the sexual abuse of children should be called religions.

Brandon also insinuated during questioning of County Mayor Ernest Burgess that the mayor had a financial interest in approval of the mosque site because one of the Islamic Center's board members, Essam Fathy, worked with a company where Burgess was once an executive.

He suggested that because Burgess still owned stock in the company, the mayor would have suffered financially if the site plan were not approved.

Under cross-examination Burgess testified that he has no influence over whether site plans are approved because those decisions are made by the county planning commission, of which he is not a member.

Brandon also told witnesses that Fathy has an Arabic phrase over his front door that the attorney referred to as "the battle cry for jihad."

The phrase, Allahu Akbar, simply means "God is great."

On Monday, federal attorneys offered legal proof in an amicus brief that Islam is a recognized religion entitled to constitutional protection.

U.S. Attorney Jerry E. Martin of Nashville said in a news release his office would not sit by while mosque opponents raise questions in court about whether Islam is a recognized religion. Martin said that to suggest otherwise "is quite simply ridiculous."

Testimony is to continue through Friday.

Published: Fri, Oct 22, 2010

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