A small handful of armed protesters outside the historic Newton County courthouse could not stop a moratorium on places of worship from quietly expiring Tuesday, clearing the way for a proposed mosque and burial ground.
The county issued the temporary moratorium last month after the mosque became a flashpoint for local anxiety over security and religious freedom.
Edward Ahmed Mitchell, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Georgia, expressed gratitude to commissioners and to residents who reached out to his organization in support of the Muslim community.
“To those Newton County residents who express and still hold anti-Muslim views, I want to say I do not blame you for your perspective,” Mitchell said, urging dialogue. “We want to be peaceful, productive, positive neighbors who have your respect and your appreciation. We don’t want you to be afraid.”
The moratorium expires at midnight Tuesday, one week after a special called meeting to lift it was cancelled due to security concerns. Although the county did not cite a specific threat, the Newton County Sheriff’s Office said it was investigating a video posted online by a local militia in which members railed against Muslims as terrorists and followers of the Antichrist.
The video, which has since been taken down, also shows an individual allegedly trespassing on the site of the proposed mosque and burial ground to hang an American flag.
Newton County commissioners did not address the mosque at its regular meeting, which was instead devoted to routine business.
“We have to treat every place of worship the same,” said County Manager Lloyd Kerr, speaking during a break.
Kerr declined to address whether the county could have handled the situation differently to minimize fallout, including a potential Department of Justice discrimination probe.
“The board has the authority to issue a moratorium when they see fit,” Kerr said. “I think we followed protocol.”
Outside, about two dozen protesters turned out respectively for opposing protests for and against the Muslim community’s right to build a mosque.
Gabriel Justus, a former Army captain who grew up in Newton County and currently studies law at the University of Georgia, carried a sign that read “Vets 4 Religious Freedom.”
Justus welcomed the end of the moratorium, but expressed frustration with the local government for making it an issue in the first place.
“The Constitution I swore to uphold and defend for eight years as an Army officer guarantees religious freedom for everyone,” he said. “I would have liked to have seen some more courage from our elected officials.”
Nearby, Jennifer Cheek of Jasper County, held an American flag as she spoke of her suspicions of Muslims.
“I’m in fear that they are trying to replace our Constitution with Sharia law,” she said. “They’re here to take our flags away … they’re here to take our country away.”