12/01/2010 10:26 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Our Gift of Religious Tolerance Must Be Shared By All Americans

Tonight, as I celebrate the Festival of lights, Hanukkah, a holiday of religious liberation, with my two beautiful children, I hope to share with them another gift along with books, video, games, and toy cars. That gift is the blessing of living in the United States, where religious observance and freedom, as well as non-observance for those who choose, is uniquely protected, as shown by the statements below. As I recently told the Senate, this gift is especially meaningful:

I can only marvel at how proud my departed refugee Russian grandmother and World War II era POW father would be to see the country they loved so very much working to extend the promise of Emma Lazarus' prose to embrace yet a new generation of Americans, who like them, need protection from unrestrained prejudice.

One of the biggest threats to that gift is the notion that the exercise and adherents of some faiths are worthy of the equal protection of our laws, while other "illegitimate" faiths are not.

As we have seen across the country the ability of our Muslim neighbors in some communities to practice their faith and build mosques is being challenged. Tonight, in Temecula, a community near mine, there is a city council meeting about the expansion of a mosque. While many have rightfully supported interfaith efforts, included in the opposition has been bigoted defamation of the Islamic faith through both words and deeds. One group of protestors went as far as to bring dogs to a protest outside the mosque, knowing that dogs near a holy place violate one of the tenets of the faith:

An Islamic Mosque is planned to be built in Temecula. We are holding a Singing - Praying - Patriotic rally on Friday on the side of road on Rio Nedo in Temecula. Bring your Bibles, flags, signs, dogs and singing voice on Friday to let everyone know we are a Christain (sic) community and will not tolerate Sharia law and radical behavior.

While some people point to the sincere debate in New York about the construction of an Islamic center near the World Trade Center as a test of our values, I point to other places like Temecula, Tennessee, and Portland, Oregon where mosques have been attacked or challenged, not on their location near a unique historic site, but simply on the basis of Islam itself.

I hope the Temecula City Council takes into account this evening, the advice of leaders, past, present and future when deliberating on the proposed Mosque project starting with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's moral and spirited defense of the right to construct an Islamic center in his city:

We would undercut the values and principles that so many heroes died protecting. We would feed the false impressions that some Americans have about Muslims. We would send a signal around the world that Muslim Americans may be equal in the eyes of the law, but separate in the eyes of their countrymen. And we would hand a valuable propaganda tool to terrorist recruiters, who spread the fallacy that America is at war with Islam.
Islam did not attack the World Trade Center - Al-Qaeda did. To implicate all of Islam for the actions of a few who twisted a great religion is unfair and un-American. Today we are not at war with Islam - we are at war with Al-Qaeda and other extremists who hate freedom.

President Obama:

And I will do everything that I can as long as I am President of the United States to remind the American people that we are one nation under God, and we may call that God different names but we remain one nation. And as somebody who heavily my Christian faith in my job, I understand the passions that religious faith can raise. But I'm also respectful that people of different faiths can practice their religion, even if they don't subscribe to the exact same notions that I do, and that they are still good people, and they are my neighbors and they are my friends, and they are alongside us in our battles.

President George W. Bush:

Islam is peace. These terrorists don't represent peace. They represent evil and war. When we think of Islam we think of a faith that brings comfort to a billion people around the world. Billions of people find comfort and solace and peace. And that's made brothers and sisters out of every race -- out of every race. America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country. Muslims are doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads. And they need to be treated with respect. In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect.
Women who cover their heads in this country must feel comfortable going outside their homes. Moms who wear cover must be not intimidated in America. That's not the America I know. That's not the America I value. I've been told that some fear to leave; some don't want to go shopping for their families; some don't want to go about their ordinary daily routines because, by wearing cover, they're afraid they'll be intimidated. That should not and that will not stand in America. Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don't represent the best of America, they represent the worst of humankind, and they should be ashamed of that kind of behavior.
Now this is a great country. It's a great country because we share the same values of respect and dignity and human worth. And it is my honor to be meeting with leaders who feel just the same way I do. They're outraged. They're sad. They love America just as much as I do.

Thomas Jefferson, who was labeled an "infidel" from some Christian critics when he was seeking the Presidency in 1800, was quite clear in his call for religious freedom and tolerance. He was so proud of his accomplishment in this area that he asked that his epitaph read: HERE WAS BURIED THOMAS JEFFERSON AUTHOR OF THE DECLARATION OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE OF THE STATUTE OF VIRGINIA FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM AND FATHER OF THE UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA.

The Virginia Religious freedom law reads in relevant part:

No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

Jefferson explained:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between church and State.....

If anything pass in a religious meeting seditiously and contrary to the public peace, let it be punished in the same manner and no otherwise as it had happened in a fair or market.

George Washington's letter to the Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island:

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support. It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy. G. Washington

Emma Lazarus' poem The New Colossus as inscribed on our Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor,
 your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
 The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
 Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me. 
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

And lastly the words of two future leaders. My soccer champ midfielder 11 year old:

"If the Muslim people want to have a place to pray, they should be able to in a place big enough to pray."

And my six year old,

" We need to live in a country that has respect for everybody's religion and where kids like me get toys for Hanukkah."

Perhaps the best gifts this holiday season, are not the fleeting things which can be discarded, but the sincere lasting sentiments and words, which are sometimes hard to express, that protect and bind us together as Americans with our families, friends and communities.