Repeal Religious Freedom at Ground Zero?

It's wrong to "refudiate" the First Amendment


Suppose there were a heavily Muslim neighborhood in New York, with mosques, religious schools, and shops with meat prepared according to Islamic dietary rules. Suppose an evangelical church wanted to build a chapel there. And suppose local Muslims tried to block it as a flagrant insult to them.

Would Sarah Palin urge the church to retract this "unnecessary provocation" in the "interest of healing"? Would her followers? Or would they scorn this disparagement of Christianity and champion the religious freedom on which America was built?

You know the answer. But Palin is not a slave to intellectual consistency. Change the church to a mosque, and put it a couple of blocks from the site of the World Trade Center, and she suddenly loses all patience with the rights of religious believers.

This week, she posted Twitter comments urging Muslims and New Yorkers to put a stop to a proposed Islamic community center near Ground Zero because the pain from the 9/11 attacks "is too raw, too real."

The people who live in the vicinity don't seem to agree. The local community board voted 29-1 to approve the project, which would include a swimming pool, gym, child-care center, performing arts space, and other facilities open to the public.

No one objects to putting up other new buildings in the neighborhood. Nor is anyone trying to close down businesses that seem slightly incompatible with the horror that happened there—including a strip club and an off-track betting parlor. The only objection to the Islamic center is that it is Islamic.

For some conservatives, anything Muslim has no place there. When Tea Party Express chairman Mark Williams was forced to resign for writing a racist satire, he said he was stepping down so he could concentrate on fighting the Ground Zero mosque, which he says would honor "the terrorists' monkey god."

A group called the National Republican Trust Political Action Committee says that "to celebrate that murder of 3,000 Americans, they want to build a monstrous 13-story mosque at Ground Zero."

Of course, the "they" who planned and executed the 9/11 attacks are not the same "they" who want to erect this structure. Both groups are made up of Muslims. But associating all Muslims with al-Qaida is like equating all Christians with the Ku Klux Klan.

The number of violent extremists in the American Islamic community is microscopically small. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has reported that of terrorist attacks carried out in the United States between 1980 and 2005, only 6 percent were committed by radical Muslims.

A recent study by researchers at Duke University and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill found one reason the number is so low is that "Muslim religious and community leaders … consistently condemned political violence in public sermons and private conversations."

Palin's position is hard to reconcile with the reverence she and her fans claim to hold for the framers, who gave the highest protection to religious freedom.

Anti-Muslim groups think Islam cannot be tolerated because it is inherently violent and totalitarian. Most Muslims disagree. But what if it were? The First Amendment guarantees the freedom of all faiths, not just the ones that are peaceful and tolerant.

The delegates to the Constitutional Convention had experience with people whose religions were oppressive—such as 17th century New England Puritans, who executed Quakers for daring to preach in Massachusetts, or Catholics, who burned heretics in Europe. The framers knew religion could be dangerous, and they protected it anyway.

The First Amendment goes beyond protecting mere beliefs. It says, "Congress shall make no law … prohibiting the free exercise" of religion.

Free exercise includes the right of the faithful to preach, to worship together, and to construct buildings for those activities. If the Constitution doesn't allow a ban on churches or synagogues at Ground Zero, it doesn't allow a veto for mosques.

As James Madison wrote, "Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and to observe the religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us."

Palin got grief for saying Muslims should "refudiate" the mosque, which raised questions about her command of English. But the real question is: What part of "no law" does she not understand?