The question to the Washington Post On Faith panel this week asks about the “religious freedom vs. wisdom” of building an Islamic community center near Ground Zero and questions the impact of public opinion polling. The following is my response, cross-posted from the Washington Post On Faith forum:
As a proponent of religious freedom who early on stated my support for the construction of Cordoba House, I was proud to see President Obama’s strong endorsement of religious freedom last Friday – and was quite disappointed when, on Saturday, he seemed to walk back his comments. That disappointment deepened as I saw a statement from Senate Majority Leader Reid’s office saying he respects religious freedom but that the mosque should be built somewhere else.
It has been disheartening to see Members of Congress and other national leaders cite public opinion polling as a reason to stop the project. Anyone with a basic knowledge of the history of the First Amendment knows that religious freedom exists in part to protect the rights of the minority from the whim of the majority. In fact, it would not be a stretch to say that if the Founding Fathers had relied on polling data, the First Amendment might not exist at all. On issues of religious freedom – and let me be clear, this is one of those issues – Congress and the President should not be wavering. In my experience, any sentence that begins “We recognize that this is a religious freedom issue, but…” is usually followed by an attempt to circumvent the guarantee of religious freedom on the basis of discomfort and bigotry. Arguing that we should overlook religious freedom in favor of taking the road less controversial is, in essence, an argument for not taking action on any significant religious freedom issue in this country; most all of them have been controversial.
Cordoba House is a project that shows the American Muslim community’s commitment to democratic values, interfaith dialogue, and civic engagement and is, in many ways, a slap in the face to the extremists who sought to destroy those values with the September 11th attacks. Please understand that Hamas’ recent statement of approval of Cordoba House is not an endorsement the initiative’s founders sought – or, I suspect, want. Imam Feisal Rauf, a voice of progressive and peaceful Islam, has long been respected as a leader in interfaith issues; he and his wife Daisy Khan have repeatedly condemned radical Islam and have taken pains to disassociate themselves from extremists. Opponents must stop intentionally mischaracterizing the motives of those behind the Cordoba Initiative, conflating them with the impure motives of extremists who defile the religion of Islam by committing acts of violence in the name of their faith.
To oppose this project because Islam is involved and Muslims are sponsors of it is a violation of the religious freedom guaranteed and protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution – period. Whether the construction of such a building is “appropriate” is not for us to decide (though I do think an institution dedicated to education, fostering mutual understanding, and facilitating reconciliation is appropriate); rather, it is for us to recognize that the founding documents of our nation permit this project to move forward as a presence whose purposes include healing. The president and Congress should remember that they have sworn to defend the Constitution. Neither now nor ever is there a time to waver from that commitment.