For the second time in two months, the Obama administration has interjected itself into a dispute over a proposed Islamic center, warning local officials that opposing the mosque could violate the civil rights of its members.
The Justice Department filed court papers Monday in support of construction of a Murfreesboro, Tenn., mosque, saying local Muslims were protected by the 1st Amendment right to free exercise of religion and disputing opponents' claims that Islam is not a valid religion.
In August, President Obama drew fire from conservatives and many New Yorkers when he said people had the right to build a mosque on private property.
The statement so inflamed his detractors that the next day the president emphasized he was not necessarily endorsing the proposed Islamic center two blocks from the former World Trade Center in New York.
In the Tennessee case, the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro is attempting to build new facilities outside of town to accommodate its growing congregation.
It purchased 15 acres for a 10,000-square-foot center, with a worship house, school, gym and pool. The surrounding area would include a pavilion and cemetery.
Opponents filed suit last month. They charged that county officials did not properly notify the community about the proposal, and argued that Islam is not a valid religion but instead a political cause to force the U.S. to adopt Muslim laws.
In August, construction equipment at the site was set on fire, and signs have been put up in the area saying, "Not welcome."
But in court filings, the government said: "Every court has treated Islam as a religion for purposes of the 1st Amendment and other federal laws. No court has held otherwise." Islam, it said, "falls plainly within the understanding of a religion for constitutional and other federal legal purposes."
Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights, said local officials had an obligation to treat a mosque the same as a church or synagogue. "This is not only common sense," he said. "It is required by federal law."
Perez and Jerry E. Martin, the top federal prosecutor in central Tennessee, noted that their decision to intervene comes on the 10th anniversary of a federal law that bars local officials from using zoning or land-use laws to discriminate against religious groups. Since 2000, they said, the Justice Department has opened 51 such investigations, filed seven lawsuits and joined in 40 privately filed suits.