The so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” is a rather good test of our committment to religious freedom. It seems that under different circumstances, say a group of Christians wanting to build a church on property they owned, there would be little to no outcry. But it’s not Christians wanting to build a house of worship near the site where the Twin Towers once stood, it’s Muslims. And that’s clearly the crux of the matter. Despite secondary appeals to saving the present building there as a historic landmark, the real issue boiling the blood of many Americans is that the site will be used to house a mosque.
And in some sense they are rightfully justified in noting the seemingly insensitive desire to place a shrine to Islam so close to the spot where Islamic terrorists killed around 3,000 innocent Americans. The unsettling nature of it is evident. But the crux of the issue is whether those opposing the mosque believe they should oppose it through protests or through government action. It’s clear that many opponents are pursuing the legal route.
The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), a conservative legal group connected with the Rev. Pat Robertson, has sought court action, basing its objections at least nominally on the process used to deny the site landmark status. But one can’t deny that behind these objections is a specific aversion to the creation of a large Muslim place of worship just blocks away from the 9/11 site. The rhetoric on cable news and talk radio is abuzz with anger over the plan to build a mosque — not the idea that the present building on the site should be preserved as some sort of landmark.
If those behind the efforts to build the mosque have, as several critics have claimed, ties to terrorism, then the critics should pursue evidence to back that up and go after them for that. To deny the building of the mosque is not the appropriate or principled route.
And that’s where the test comes. Those seeking government action against the mosque building are essentially arguing that government, because of the overwhelming desire of many Americans for it to do so, should have the power to deny individuals the ability to build a place of worship on their own land. They are essentially, whether they admit it or not, arguing that the angry majority’s will overrides the right of individuals to their property and, perhaps even more importantly, their right to the free exercise of religion.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, despite what you may think of him otherwise, perhaps noted it in the most clear terms when he explained the following:
The simple fact is this building is private property, and the owners have a right to use the building as a house of worship. The government has no right whatsoever to deny that right – and if it were tried, the courts would almost certainly strike it down as a violation of the U.S. Constitution. Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question – should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here. This nation was founded on the principle that the government must never choose between religions, or favor one over another.
The simple fact that a large group of people, even a solid majority, opposes a certain religion does not justify using government to deny the individual religious rights of members of that religion who are seeking to build a place of worship on property they own. Principles are not to be cast aside based upon circumstances — especially such time-honored principles like our country’s committment to limited government and free religious exercise.
Many of us, especially Christians, are often quick to assert our right to freely practice our faith without government restriction. But the real test of our committment to freedom of religion comes not when dealing with our own particular freedom, it comes when we are faced with permitting others not of our faith that same freedom.