Casualty Of War: The First Amendment and the Ground Zero Mosque

As Americans watched the World Trade Center turn into a mass of mangled steel, engulfing lower Manhattan in a cloud of smoke and fiery ash, the best and worst qualities of the nation’s character were revealed. We may not have succumbed to fear and intolerance at that moment, but our tendency to abandon our principles became evident on that day in September 2001.

Almost nine years later, the wounds from 9/11 remain apparent. The maelstrom of protests surrounding the construction of an Islamic community center located more than two blocks from ground zero has turned a New York zoning issue into a national debate on the First Amendment.

In such a highly charged dispute, it is easy to be blinded by emotion, obscuring the simple truth of the matter: The building is private property and can be used as a house of worship by its owners. No government agency; city, state or federal, can prevent the American Society for Muslim Advancement and its followers from using the land as they see fit.

Special consideration should be given to families of 9/11 victims, but their pain and loss do not trump the constitutional rights of their fellow citizens. Lower Manhattan will always be hallowed ground, and to deny any person the right to observe their faith at that site would only diminish the sacrifices of the men and women who lost their lives.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s passionate address on Aug. 3, calling for the construction of the center, was one of the most reasoned defenses of the First Amendment in this nation’s history. It is a speech that belongs next to the “Gettysburg Address” for its brevity, eloquence and fearless defense of American values.

With the Statue of Liberty at his back, Bloomberg said, “The attack was an act of war — and our first responders defended not only our city but also our country and our Constitution. We do not honor their lives by denying the very constitutional rights they died protecting. We honor their lives by defending those rights — and the freedoms that the terrorists attacked.”

For critics to define this debate as anything but a First Amendment issue is disingenuous. There is little doubt that a firmly rooted mistrust of Muslims underlies the opposition. Fifty-nine percent of New Yorkers said they knew someone who had “negative feelings” toward Muslims, according to a Sept. 3 New York Times poll.

Considering New Yorkers pride themselves for living in such a diverse city, it is unfortunate that this debate has extended beyond the five boroughs and become a national talking point for politicians seeking political office. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said the mosque should not be built until churches are erected in Saudi Arabia, completely forgetting the religious freedoms that distinguish America from an oppressive kingdom.
A mosque already exists within four blocks of the World Trade Center site, not to mention dozens of fast food restaurants, bars and adult movie theaters. As Bloomberg pointed out, no one would be raising their voice if a church or synagogue was being built instead.

Much like the 2007 controversy surrounding New York’s first bilingual English-Arabic school, Khalil Gibran International Academy, critics have tried to misrepresent the goals of the center’s founders. In the case of Khalil Gibran, opponents labeled the public school a madrassa, brandishing its principal as a terrorist sympathizer. Today, the same tactics are being used to indirectly connect the center’s founders and financiers — who have routinely denounced terrorism — to terrorist groups.

The center would be an ideal place for moderate Islam to expand. Ground zero could become a place where people from all walks of life can share in the American experience.

Whether you kneel before a cross or bow your head to the ground five times a day, the text that all Americans should hold sacred is the Constitution of the United States. We must not allow the tyranny of the majority to abandon the rights and liberties that benefit us all. We cannot allow the First Amendment to be the last victim of 9/11.


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