President Obama, after saying that building a mosque at Ground Zero fit our “commitment to religious freedom,” backtracked, saying he wasn’t commenting on the ‘wisdom’ of building it so close to ‘hallowed ground.’
A Fox News poll showed that while 61 percent of Americans believe that Cordoba House has a constitutional right to build near Ground Zero, 64 percent believe it is not appropriate to do so.
Does Obama’s hedging show a lack of ethical convictions? Does Hamas’ endorsement change the debate? What is behind public opposition to the site? Can you believe in religious freedom but not believe the mosque is appropriate?
Belief in religious freedom — in both the American historical and legal traditions — should mean protecting religious freedom for all, in word and in deed.
President Barack Obama’s statements affirming our country’s commitment to religious freedom as central to “who we are as Americans” was a positive exercise of leadership. He rightly placed the recent debate over the Cordoba House project in context of our founding principles in a way that many hoped would quell the most uninformed and incendiary comments. At the local level, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg offered a strong and thoughtful response to those who tried unsuccessfully to use landmark laws to prevent the project. I admire the clarity of his statement and the sensitivity he showed to the dissenters following the vote of the Landmark Preservation Commission.
It is often overlooked that the constitutional commitment to the no establishment and free exercise protections embodied in the First Amendment are the result of struggles for religious freedom of religious minorities against the majority. The Christian majority — composed of numerous different denominations, including many that struggled for their freedom to worship as they see fit — has the responsibility to ensure that freedom exists for all. That responsibility means more than supporting good laws. It also means making sure the rights exist in practice.
That is why the Baptist Joint Committee worked with a broad coalition of other religious and civil liberties groups to pass laws that ensure that the free exercise rights for all were treated without discrimination. Federal statutes, such as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, were passed in recognition of the need to ensure that all religious groups be treated the same — including how they use private property — despite religious differences with their neighbors.
Despite the lack of solid legal arguments against the project, the debate is continuing. Now the focus has shifted to the “wisdom” instead of the “right” to build. Sure, not everything that is legal is also the right thing to do. The leaders of this project, like all property owners, have duties as good neighbors and good citizens to make a well-reasoned judgment as to how to use their property.
It is true, as Mayor Bloomberg recalled in his Aug. 3 speech, that religious minorities often have had to fight hard to enjoy the rights that those in the majority often take for granted. We have not always lived up to our highest principles, and indeed, some misunderstandings are to be expected. But a lack of public consensus is not a sufficient reason to justify stopping a religious gathering site. In legal battles across the country, citizens may oppose the size, appearance and location of buildings built for religious communities, but each should be judged by the same standards.
Many of the recent statements that affirm religious freedom, while questioning the “wisdom” and “appropriateness” of this project, ring hollow. The burden of ensuring that all enjoy religious freedom equally falls to all of us.