Tenn. Rep. Scott DesJarlais Says Religious Freedom Shouldn't Extend to Mosque Cemetery

| by Allison Geller

Tennessee Republican Rep. Scott DesJarlais voiced his concerns about the “impact on the community” of a new cemetery that a local mosque plans to build. DesJarlais called the religious freedom law that allowed the cemetery “unfortunate" in a social media post.

The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro (ICM) already has a fraught history of opposition. Arsonists lit the site of the mosque on fire in August 2010 when construction was just getting underway. Members of the highly Christian community came together to demonstrate the mosque with signs and t-shirts reading "Vote for Jesus" and "No Sharia law for USA!”

Now that the mosque plans to build a cemetery, the Republican congressman from South Pittsburg is picking up on his constituents’ anti-Muslim sentiment, Think Progress reports.

“Friends, I have received numerous calls over the last couple of weeks regarding the Murfreesboro mosque cemetery,” he wrote in a Jan. 24 Facebook post. “Although this is a state issue, I am deeply concerned over the impact it might have on our community.

“Unfortunately, the Tennessee Religious Freedom (Restoration) Act, passed by the TN General Assembly, may have played a key role in allowing this cemetery to be approved. 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.”

The law in question is the 2009 Tennessee Religious Freedom Act, which states 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.”

Saleh Sbenaty, a professor at Middle Tennessee State university and a board member for the ICM, questioned the congressman’s allegation that the mosque was “circumventing” laws. Sbenaty accused DesJarlais of “interfering with a local process” that had followed all zoning and planning rules.

“We have been following all of the rules and regulations in regard to the cemetery,” Sbenaty told the Daily News Journal. “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? Mr. DesJarlais should focus on more important issues, such as education more jobs, the economy and bringing support to Tennessee from the federal government,” Sbenaty added.

County Board of Zoning Appeals Chairman Zane Cantrel said DesJarlais is trying to drum up votes. DesJarlais is facing tough opposition in his reelection bid in the Fourth Congressional District against state Sen. Jim Tracy.

“Obviously DesJarlais is desperate to get votes, especially in Rutherford County,” said Cantrell. “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.”

Sources: CBS, Think Progress, Daily News Journal