The core American ideal of religious freedom has been put at risk. News of Park51, the proposed Muslim community center in lower Manhattan, has spawned protests against a religious group that simply seeks to create a meeting place and has gone out of its way to make clear that the space will be open to the entire New York community.
These protests, diatribes, and campaigns against Park51 violate the ideals of religious freedom to which our country has long aspired. The First Amendment of the Constitution states explicitly that
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
The local government has so far done its part to uphold and apply these Constitutional rights. The Community Board of Lower Manhattan approved the building project 29 to 1, with 10 abstentions, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg voiced his strong support.
But individuals have taken the application of this freedom into their own hands. It would appear that more extreme voices want this right to apply only to their own religious communities, and not to others. But when one group's freedoms are threatened, the religious freedom of all Americans is at stake.
In response to the ongoing and often radical criticism of Park51 and its leaders, we are proud to announce the launch of Religious Freedom USA. Religious Freedom USA is a new campaign to safeguard freedom of religion and mobilize Americans to support Park51 as an expression of this core American value. We invite and encourage you to join the movement. Send in a video of support, write a letter to the editor, sign our petition, help organize a local rally, or join us for an event here in New York.
Some may wonder why a Born Again Christian and a future rabbi, both under the age of 25, are working to build support for a Muslim community center. To us it seems natural: this is not simply a Muslim issue, a Jewish issue, or a Christian issue. This is an American issue, and members of all religious communities are affected by a threat to religious freedom.
As our Petition for Religious Freedom makes clear,
Since the first pilgrims reached the shores of Plymouth, America has shone as a beacon of religious freedom, illuminating the path to liberty for the oppressed from every land, in every generation. Extreme criticism of the proposed Muslim community center in lower Manhattan is an affront to the religious freedom that our Founding Fathers fought to secure. We stand by our belief in freedom of worship and freedom of expression and consider the Park51 community center to be an expression of both. We are proud to unite behind it as a symbol of religious freedom.
This is about protecting the civil rights assured to all Americans in the Constitution.
Some may question why Park51 should be located in Downtown Manhattan, not so far from the site where terrorists brutally took 3,000 innocent American lives on 9/11. We would respond that those terrorists have already taken so much from us that they should not be allowed to take the soul of America, too. That soul resides in the basic tenets of the American Constitution, notably the belief that religious freedom must be extended to all, not granted on a case-by-case basis. Our fight against al-Qaeda starts at home with our fight to protect the Constitutional values they so viciously oppose.
We must not allow religious freedom to be compromised. That would be not only a loss for the American community in which we live, but also a slight to the Founding Fathers and the hopes they had for our country. Park51 represents a defining moment for religious freedom in America.
Addressing the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, as America's first president, George Washington, expressed this hope: "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 fig-tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid." In working together to protect religious freedom, we may yet realize his vision.
Follow Rabbi Joshua Stanton on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JoshuaMZStanton