NASHVILLE - Gov. Phil Bredesen called on Tennesseans Monday to show religious tolerance in the wake of Saturday's suspected arson at the site of a future mosque in Murfreesboro.
The governor, a Democrat, also urged politicians in both parties not to use the ongoing mosque controversy for partisan gain.
Asked by reporters about the suspected arson case, which is attracting national attention, Bredesen said "this is a contentious time and there's a lot of strong feelings."
"I guess I would ask everybody to remember this is a country whose deepest origins are in religious freedom - it was founded by people who escaped to it to practice their religions - and to ask people to please have great respect for anyone's religious preferences and their rights to practice those in the United States," the governor said. "I think it goes right to the heart of what this country is about."
According to authorities, a fire broke out early Saturday morning at the planned Islamic Center of Murfreesboro. It destroyed a heavy hauler, according to Eric Kehn, spokesman for the Nashville office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Three other pieces of equipment were damaged.
"The investigation continues into a suspected arson fire," Kehn said, adding the investigation is being handled by the BATFE as well as the FBI and Rutherford County, and authorities are also looking into whether the incident may be a hate crime.
The incident comes amid a heated debate in Murfreesboro over the planned mosque as well as the national controversy over plans by a Muslim group to build a mosque near the World Trade Center site in New York City.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee condemned the fire, saying the group supports the right of Muslims across the state to construct places of worship and practice their religion. The ACLU noted that "religious freedom is one of America's most fundamental liberties."
A candlelight vigil was held Monday night in support of the Murfreesboro project by the group Middle Tennesseans for Religious Freedom, or MT4RF. The group formed earlier this year to show support for the new mosque and Murfreesboro's Muslims.
Bredesen said that if the Murfreesboro fire turns out to be arson, he still believes it is "relatively muted" in light of past American actions such as the federal government's mass internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
But when it comes to issues such as the mosque and illegal immigration, the governor urged Tennessee politicians to "please remember who we are as a country and, you know, have some tolerance. Perhaps if you're a Republican and want to gig a Democrat or a Democrat and want to gig a Republican then find some places to do it that don't drive these kinds of passions and hatreds in a way that I think is very un-American."
Earlier this summer, the Murfreesboro mosque debate spilled over into Republicans' 6th Congressional District primary with then-candidate Lou Ann Zelenik, of Murfreesboro, calling the center an "Islamic training center" and questioning its links to the radical Islamic movement, Hamas.
In the Republican gubernatorial primary, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, drew criticism following a taped appearance in Chattanooga in which he suggested that Islam might be a cult.
Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam won the GOP nomination. Asked for the mayor's thoughts Monday in light of the Murfreesboro incident and Bredesen's remarks, Haslam spokesman David Smith said via e-mail that "the mayor's faith is very important to him, and he respects the right of others to practice their faith, so long as they are respectful of the communities in which they live and the laws of the land."
Democratic nominee Mike McWherter, meanwhile, said in an e-mailed statement that "regardless of political or religious beliefs this hateful act of intolerance is not acceptable in Murfreesboro or anywhere else in the country. Furthermore, those individuals responsible for this cowardly act should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."