The United States is governed by a constitution whose First Amendment guarantees free exercise of religion. Governments at every level have understood that they must not obstruct the construction of religious facilities in their communities, even if those facilities are intended for (tiny, misunderstood, unpopular) religious minorities. This is one of the very best practices of our country. Millions of people have come here through the centuries because of this constitutional guarantee of the free exercise of religion -- including many, many Christians.
Religious liberty had to be enshrined in the Constitution because popular passions threaten such liberty. Religious differences matter greatly to people and thus, almost by definition, have routinely inspired passions strong enough to hinder the free exercise of religion. Now add national grief and security fears, and the passions over religion become fierce indeed.
A longstanding (pre-9/11) effort by a mainstream Muslim community in New York to build a Muslim center that ended up being near what became "Ground Zero" has become Exhibit A in the contest between popular passion and constitutional principle. Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York and the zoning board that approved the project are to be greatly commended for making decisions about this mosque/community center solely on the basis of constitutional principle and established zoning policies. And Mayor Bloomberg deserves all kinds of credit for seizing the opportunity to make such an eloquent case for our nation's principles of religious liberty. It is inspiring to see a government official actually offer principled leadership.
Those family members whose personal grief over 9/11 leads them to oppose this project deserve our profound sympathy but not our acquiescence. Their hurt is understandable but cannot prevail over constitutional principles. It is the kind of concern that must be heard respectfully but finally rejected as a basis for public policy.
Those politicians who are using this very real grief, our residual national fear of terrorism, and contempt for Islam to gain popular support deserve neither our sympathy nor our acquiescence, but only our condemnation. This is pandering at its most contemptible.
For those mainly conservative Christians who are responding to this and other mosque projects with open expressions of anti-Muslim hatred, and open rejections of the principles of religious liberty from which Christians themselves daily benefit, shame on you! As a fellow Christian, I say that you bring dishonor to the name of Jesus Christ, you directly disobey his command that we love our neighbors, and you drive the watching world even further away from any interest in the Gospel message!
And one more thing: watch out for so casually trampling on the religious liberties of others. You may be able to get away with it now, when you/we are in the majority, but if you undermine religious liberty for other people's children today, your own children may one day see their religious liberties deprived from them! The principle that protects Muslims today will protect Christians tomorrow -- as it always has protected different varieties of Christians throughout our nation's history.
And to those Americans who happen to be Muslim, I say: please do not think that the hatefulness of a few visible "Christians" represents the views of all the rest of us. Some of us are just as appalled by what we are witnessing as you are.
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