Sunday, August 29, 2010

Ground Zero Mosque and Religious Freedom

It seems to me that there are two very different issues regarding the mosque (and cultural center). Whether the builders have the right to build it two blocks from Ground Zero, and whether one thinks it is a good idea to build it there. I believe President Obama tried to make this distinction, but, in part because he addressed the points on two separate days, it was in-artfully done (to be kind).

Let's be clear about the first point. There would be no objection to building a Christian church two blocks from Ground Zero. This country was founded, in part, by those fleeing religious persecution, and freedom of religion is fundamental to our society and our Constitution. As such, any attempt to prevent the building of the mosque (and cultural center) should be, and likely would be, ruled unconstitutional. But it goes far beyond legality. I think that to be true to the freedoms we hold dear, we need to support the right to build the mosque even if we strongly disagree with its construction. Supporting freedom means supporting things one does not agree with.

Note that this principle applies to the speech of those who oppose the mosque. They have the right to say it should not be built, and, like Voltaire, I will defend to the death their right to do so. But when someone uses their right to free speech to call for the rights of others to be curtailed, I think it is particularly important we use our right to free speech to call for those rights (here freedom of religion) to be respected.

Now, is it a good idea to built it there? Well, that depends somewhat on what 'it' is. If it really is a center designed to promote religious understanding, then Ground Zero would certainly serve as a powerful reminder to all who came there what horrible things rage coupled with fundamentalism can do. On the other hand, there are some who lost loved ones in 9/11 who will be traumatized by its presence. One can argue that they should not react that way, since the terrorist act was committed by a small sect of people (and sects in all religions have done awful things), but this is an emotional issue.

If one thinks it is a bad idea to build it there, I think it is perfectly reasonable to ask the builders to reconsider their location. But I think it goes against the idea of religious freedom to demand it.

In brief, I think there is nothing wrong with having misgivings about a mosque (and cultural center) being built two blocks from Ground Zero, but I think all of us need to defend the right for it to be built there.

[photo: Dramatization of a pilgrim praying freely in the New World.]