Reps. Ellison and King debate issue of building Islamic center near Ground Zero

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 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.

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Comments (26)

  1. Submitted by dan buechler on 08/16/2010 - 10:11 am.

    As I understand it from the news there are numerous sex shops, gambling bookies, liquor, tobacco, and illegal drug sales even closer to the twin towers sight. You gotta laugh at the religious conservatives but they are doing damage to the country. America love it or leave it!

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/16/2010 - 10:20 am.

    “This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable..”

    This from a man who described Christians in America as people that “cling to their guns and their bibles”.

    I don’t think I’m alone in being highly un-impressed, and just as skeptical of P-BO’s motivations as I am of the Saudi Arabian Islamics that are funding the mosque’s construction.

  3. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 08/16/2010 - 10:36 am.

    I agree that some people could find the construction of a mosque near Ground Zero as tasteless. I also believe that our Constitution enshrines individuals with rights, such as freedom of speech, religion and assembly, which cannot be taken away on a mere whim.

    In America, it takes a lot more than the fact that someone is offended to restrict people’s freedoms, and nothing about this mosque rises to that level. It is harmless, potentially capable of sending a positive message, and in no way infringes on the liberties of anyone else, other than the perceived right to which some feel entitled to never be offended by the actions of others. Unfortunately for them, this right does not actually exist.

  4. Submitted by Eric Henly on 08/16/2010 - 11:03 am.

    So what about state’s rights? Conservatives always seem to want to evoke local rights over local issues – if so, then the local government has approved the construction of this building.

    It should be noted that this will be a community center that includes a mosque. Is that all that much different than the YMCAs or JCCs found all over this country? It should also be noted that there is a prayer area inside the Pentagon for Muslims, and that actual building was attacked on 9/11.

  5. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 08/16/2010 - 11:38 am.

    I don’t understand who Ellison was “debating.” King agreed they have a right to build a mosque there. I haven’t heard anyone say they didn’t have a right to build a mosque there. It’s a straw man to suggest anyone, least of all conservatives, have said otherwise.

    The point that Ellsion should have “debated” is SHOULD they build a mosque there. If they want to show sensitivity to the families of the victims, to the people of New York, who are strongly against this (68% oppose it), they would have avoided this controversy and built it somewhere else. The irony is, the New York trade unions, not conservatives, will see that it doesn’t get built.

  6. Submitted by Hénock Gugsa on 08/16/2010 - 12:24 pm.

    @ #2 – Could you for once stick to the issue at hand and argue it instead of branching off on a bitter partisan rancor?

    The issue here is whether it is right to build a mosque right here (at Ground Zero) or very close by. Of-course people are trying to cloud everything with the Constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion and/or worship. Yes, we have freedom of religion, and freedom of speech. But with freedom (rights) comes responsibilites.

    In my view, in as much as we should not cry “Fire” in a crowded theater, so also we should not build a mosque at Ground Zero. It is very simple. I don’t know of a mosque any where that does not have a loud speaker phone for chants of “Alahu Akbar.” And, for those who did not know, that was the battle cry of the terrorists as they brought death and destruction to thousands of innocent people at this site.

    So, no, no, no to any mosque there. But, if they want to build a humanitarian center to bring about a reconciliation without the “religion” baggage, that would be fine!

    One last point, I don’t think politicians should weigh in on this matter one way or another. I think they just want to make political hay out of it. We can all opinionate, but the issue should really be left to the citizens of New York City.

  7. Submitted by James Hamilton on 08/16/2010 - 01:00 pm.

    We’re all entitled to an opinion on whether it’s appropriate to build a mosque where intended, just as we are entitled to an opinion on the siting of a feedlot. But, like feedlot siting decisions, government must act on the basis of facts and laws, not attitutdes and its estimaiton of the level of offense.

    Obviously, the construction of a mosque at this (or any other location, frankly) is going to offend some. They’re entitled to voice their complaints and take whatever action they wish to influence the decision, within the law.

    Unfortunately, too many who condemn the proposal do so because they conflate Islam with terrorism. One can subscribe to either without subscribing to both, demagogues notwithstanding.

  8. Submitted by andy on 08/16/2010 - 01:04 pm.

    This is a typical Noise Machine smear- turning a nothing issue into a National Crisis- the people behind the center are even the “good muslims” the Right Wing claims it wants to reach.

    Salon has a good timeline on this farce:

  9. Submitted by John Autey on 08/16/2010 - 01:04 pm.

    Why don’t the opponents of the mosque simply buy the property instead of pressuring the government to block the creation of the mosque?

    How far away becomes far enough? Who decides?

    What other amendments in the Bill of Rights do Republicans wish to selectively apply?

  10. Submitted by Eric Henly on 08/16/2010 - 01:16 pm.

    @#8 The association of terrorism with all of Islam by citing the shouts of “Alahu Akbar” from the terrorists rings hollow. Just as Timothy McVeigh thought he was doing God’s work, so did the 9/11 terrorists. how many times do you think people have called for God to bless their cause before heading off to war, or before they play a football game for that matter?

    This debate should be about religious freedom. Anyone who thinks otherwise is naïve – efforts my Muslims to build mosques all over the country have been met with similar attempts by conservatives to stop them.

  11. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/16/2010 - 02:36 pm.

    “The developers of Cordoba House are Sufi, not something that would be looked on very favorably by the Wahabis of Saudi Arabia.”

    David, it’s a pity the thirteen (of 19 total) 9/11 terrorists that hailed from Saudi Arabia didn’t know that….’cause al Queda is a Sufi joint.

  12. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/16/2010 - 03:21 pm.

    Eric, not only did Timothy McVeigh never say he was “doing God’s work”, he is quoted as saying that he’d drifted from religion altogether.

    Sometimes, it’s nice to have just a couple of facts straight to build your argument on.

  13. Submitted by Hénock Gugsa on 08/16/2010 - 03:29 pm.

    @ #15 – “How far away becomes far enough?”

    Let me try to answer that this way.

    At one point in “True Grit”, Marshall Cogburn (John Wayne) says to the guy from Texas, LaBoeuf (Glen Campbell): “[Hold on a second] back up … are you backed up?”

    In the same manner, I would like to say that as long as things or people are not in your face, there will not be any problem. It is called “giving due consideration and respect to the feelings” of people.

    It is a mystery to me when people insult (or hurt) people and then hope the saying “sticks and stones … blah, blah, blah” will solve everything. Let’s be real here.

  14. Submitted by dan buechler on 08/16/2010 - 03:35 pm.

    Thomas Swift here is some news you can use. PETA is opening branch offices near kosher and halal meat markets. Also in case you didn’t know it muslims wiped out my entire ancestory. Its true!

  15. Submitted by Sherry Berg on 08/16/2010 - 03:59 pm.

    the “terrorists” have won.

  16. Submitted by Eric Henly on 08/16/2010 - 04:06 pm.

    Tom – fair enough, McVeigh’s bible was the Turner Diaries. The point remains that heinous acts have been perpetrated by “Christians” in the name of God that should not reflect on actual Christians in general. This is true of “Christian” acts throughout history, including (but not limited to) the Inquisition, the Holocaust, the murder of abortion practitioners, etc.

  17. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 08/16/2010 - 05:34 pm.

    The NY Times, I believe, ran an article in which the writer noted the presence of a number of mosques in the area where the new community center will be built, so there must be quite a large number of Muslim residents living in that neighborhood.

    The 9/11 victims’ survivors seem to have fallen for the line of propaganda that says all Muslims are terrorists, which is no more true than saying all Christians torture those who don’t share their beliefs because the Spanish Church did during the Inquisition. It is simply not true and it will not ease anyone’s grief to blame innocent members of the same religion the 9/11 terrorists belonged to.

    Would counter-propaganda education on the nature of religious extremism of every kind help?

  18. Submitted by Hénock Gugsa on 08/16/2010 - 07:00 pm.

    @ #22 – Re: The NY Times article (to which you are referring)…

    I have not read it; it is interesting and worth taking into consideration in our exchanges here.

    If there are indeed a lot of mosques in the vicinity already, it makes one wonder why the need for this one now? But then again, perhaps it is better to leave well enough alone.

    In the end, the community there will make the final decision; and all our dialectical discussions here and everywhere will turn out to be nothing but storm in a tea pot!

  19. Submitted by Gregory Lang on 08/16/2010 - 07:09 pm.

    From what I understand the vast majority of the money to build this Mega Mosque comes from Saudi Arabia and other foreign sources.

    Wouldn’t this make this a “state sponsored religion” endevor?

    Generally, if you want to start or build a church you have to do it with money from members of the church who reside in the USA.

  20. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 08/17/2010 - 07:00 am.

    This is hardly rocket science. America is plainly safer if its Muslims feel part of “us” and not, part of “them”. And that means reminding Americans of the difference—a real one, by the way, not one fabricated for the purposes of political correctness—between Islam, a religion with a billion adherents, and al-Qaeda, a terrorist outfit that claims to speak in Islam’s name but has absolutely no right or mandate to do so.

    Why would any responsible American politician want to erase that vital distinction? To the a political opportunist and demagogue it seems, an American Muslim is a Muslim first and an American second.

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