From time to time, President Barack Obama speaks his mind without mincing words, something we wish he’d do more often. Speaking Friday evening at a White House Ramadan event (calm down, conspiracy theorists; President George Bush did the same thing all eight years of his presidency), President Obama weighed in on plans to build an Islamic community center that includes a worship area two blocks from ground zero:
Recently, attention has been focused on the construction of mosques in certain communities, particularly in New York. Now, we must all recognize and respect the sensitivities surrounding the development of lower Manhattan. The 9/11 attacks were a deeply traumatic event for our country. The pain and suffering experienced by those who lost loved ones is unimaginable. …
But let me be clear: As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country. That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable.
Predictably, the GOP pounced on his statement, and it’s too bad President Obama felt the need to walk back those comments yesterday. Speaking in Panama City, Fla., the president said, “My intention was simply to let people know what I thought, which was that in this country, we treat everybody equally and in accordance with the law, regardless of race, regardless of religion. I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there.”
That the president should feel the need to defend his support for freedom of religion, a basic founding principle of this nation, says a lot about the state of politics in 2010. The Sept. 11 attack on our nation should strengthen our resolve to preserve the values that make our nation great, freedom of religion being one of them. It should not lead us to practice the kind of intolerance that drives the murderous actions of our enemies.
And by the way, to the 68 percent of Americans who apparently oppose building the mosque in question, please be clear that the proposal is not to build a mosque on top of Ground Zero but two blocks away at the former site of the Burlington Coat Factory, in a bustling commercial area. And as The New York Times reported, at least two other mosques have existed quietly in the area for decades.
Freedom of religion is protected under the First Amendment. It’s time to get a grip, people.
–Sheryl Huggins Salomon