WASHINGTON — Rep. Keith Ellison today cast the question over whether a group of Muslims should be able to build an Islamic center blocks from Ground Zero in New York as a fundamental test of religious freedom and the First Amendment.
“Every school kid knows that the pilgrims came to America for religious liberty, they came here to worship as they see fit,” Ellison said in an appearance on “Good Morning America.” “So if a group of religious adherents can be stopped from building a house of worship then that will be a suffering blow for religious liberty in our country. It’ll be a setback for the idea that you can worship as you see fit in America.
“Now, that is a deeply rooted and important value and I don’t think we should compromise on it.”
Ellison was debating the point with New York Republican Rep. Peter King, who countered that building the 13-story Islamic center so close to Ground Zero “sends exactly the wrong message.”
“The Muslim community has a right to do it,” said King, whose Long Island district includes many who lost loved ones in the Sept. 11 attacks, “but I think the responsible thing to do is to move it away.”
The issue is a touchy one for many Americans, points out polling analyst and FiveThirtyEight.com founder Nate Silver. In a weekend post, Silver noted that the country seems to be divided into thirds on the issue.
About a third of the country thinks that not only do the developers have a right to build the mosque, but that it’s a perfectly appropriate thing to do. Another third think that while the development is in poor taste, the developers nevertheless have a right to build it. And the final third think that not only is the development inappropriate, but the developers have no right to build it — perhaps they think that the government should intervene to stop it in some fashion.
It’s not just in New York City. Mosque-building projects across the country have met with opposition, from red states like Tennessee to purple states like Wisconsin and blue states like California.
President Obama waded into the controversy over the weekend, telling those at a White House dinner that he believes Muslims “have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances.“
“This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are. The writ of the Founders must endure.”
Obama seemed to walk back the comments somewhat the next day, telling a White House pool reporter that he “was not commenting” and “will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That’s what our country is about.”
“And I think it’s very important as difficult as some of these issues are that we stay focused on who we are as a people and what our values are all about.”
Bill Burton, a White House spokesman (and University of Minnesota alumnus), clarified the president’s position in a statement:
Just to be clear, the President is not backing off in any way from the comments he made last night.It is not his role as President to pass judgment on every local project. But it is his responsibility to stand up for the Constitutional principle of religious freedom and equal treatment for all Americans.
What he said last night, and reaffirmed today, is that If a church, a synagogue or a Hindu temple can be built on a site, you simply cannot deny that right to those who want to build a Mosque.
The World Trade Center site is hallowed ground, where 3000 Americans-Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims were the victims of a cold-blooded massacre. We are still at war with the small band of terrorists who planned and executed that attack.
But that does not give government the right to deny law-abiding Americans of one faith the same rights you would accord anyone else.
Full video of the GMA exchange between Ellison and King is below.