Faith and freedom

August 5, 2010 

It's the 9/11 of emotional issues. The proposal to build a mosque near the Ground Zero site in lower Manhattan has understandably angered many people - and not a few politicians - in New York and around the nation.

The issues involved are deeply felt and firmly entrenched in the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001, when Islamic extremists dispatched by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda murdered nearly 3,000 people at the World Trade Center, in Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon.

As one woman told Newsday this week, "We are not bigots ... I know that not all Muslims are terrorists, but all these terrorists were Muslims and I cannot forget that." But also entitled to consideration are claims that the mosque project's backers should not be blocked from their stated goals of encouraging moderate Islam and of bridging religious divides.

There is one point, however, that should not be subject to dispute. That is the use of governmental power to block a religious organization from putting up a worship center on land it owns (or is buying) because of opposition to the particular faith involved.

Such an effort goes directly counter to our concept of religious liberty. And yet using government power to block the mosque seems to be just what some people want various committees in New York City - from zoning boards to the Landmarks Preservation Commission - to do.

Their complaints may focus on specific factors - such as whether a building that would be torn down to make way for the mosque merits landmark status (it doesn't, as the commission unanimously decided this week) - but the essence of their plea is that government step in to stop any mosque near Ground Zero.

As Mayor Michael Bloomberg appropriately noted, "The government has no right whatsoever to deny that right [to build] - and if it were tried, the courts would almost certainly strike it down as a violation of the U.S. Constitution."

The mosque plan may be a breathtakingly bad idea. At the least it can be seen as insensitive. But the mosque's opponents should aim to persuade the project's backers to back off - not to have the government curtail their freedom to worship.

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