08/02/2010 06:11 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Ground Zero Mosque Opposition: Shall We Retreat from Religious Freedom?

Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, potential candidates for the presidency in 2012, have condemned efforts to erect an Islamic social center and mosque on private land in lower Manhattan, near the site of the former World Trade Center. They view such a center as offensive to families of the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Presumably, as president, they would use the bully pulpit to state their objections as well, unless they would have us believe that what they are saying now is just to get votes and not a policy they would advocate once elected. This is strange indeed, coming from the Republican right, which has long claimed that the government has been hostile to and has no business interfering with the free exercise of religion.

In their defense, one might argue that they are not opposed to the Islamic center, just to its proposed location. In other words, they would tolerate such a center if it were located somewhere else. But toleration is not freedom. A history lesson might be helpful here.

James Madison, the author if the First Amendment, had a long history in Virginia as a proponent of the free exercise of religion. He objected strenuously to efforts that only promised religious "toleration," arguing that if government "tolerates" religion, that implied it might at some point and on some issues not tolerate it, meaning that the right was restricted, not absolute. The First Amendment thus enjoins the Congress from passing any law that respects "an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Through the Fourteenth Amendment and Supreme Court decisions, this prohibition applies equally to state and local governments. The result of freedom, as opposed to toleration, is that we are arguably the freest nations on earth for religious expression.

The decision on whether to approve the request of the Islamic community to build their center on private (not public) land in New York City is a local government matter that should be based on whether the plan meets zoning and development ordinances, not on what form of religion takes place there. Would Palin and Gingrich object to a YMCA on the same site? To a mega-church? To a synagogue?

The 9/11 attacks were not perpetrated by the Islamic religion. They were launched by terrorists who practiced an extreme form of Islam. Religious extremists who are Christian have killed abortion providers in this country, but we would not ban a proposed church near the site of a Planned Parenthood clinic for that reason.

Palin and Gingrich (and most recently even the Anti-Defamation League) do seem in the mainstream of American thought on this issue. Public opinion polls show that over 50 percent of Americans are opposed to the Islamic center and mosque (Rasmussen poll, July 19-20, 2010). But freedom of religious expression in the United States does not depend on majority opinion. That's the reason for the First Amendment. Nor does freedom of religion in America depend on other nations honoring that freedom as well, as Gingrich demands when he says that "there should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia." Further, leadership is not a matter of finding public opinion and acting on it but of forming public opinion that is consistent with American and Constitutional values. In this sense, the silence of President Obama on this controversy is troubling as well.

President Bush said to the American people on September 20, 2001:

I also want to speak tonight directly to Muslims throughout the world. We respect your faith. It's practiced freely by many millions of Americans and by millions more in countries that America counts as friends. Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah.

Later in the same speech, he said, "We're in a fight for our principles, and our first responsibility is to live by them. No one should be singled out for unfair treatment or unkind words because of their ethnic background or religious faith."

When Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich single out Muslims for unfair treatment, they push their party out of the mainstream of American values and Constitutional history. They dishonor the religious freedom they so loudly demand for Christians and Jews, and they dishonor the Americans and others of all faiths who died on September 11th.