NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–When it comes to religious freedom, people of the Muslim faith have the right to build mosques in America that are convenient to their communities under local standards, Richard Land told Warren Olney, host of Public Radio International’s “To the Point” radio broadcast Aug. 11.
Currently, the debate resides over whether or not Muslims have the right to build a mosque two blocks away from Ground Zero. The national dispute has pitted those of the Muslim faith and others sympathetic to their position against other religious and conservative groups who believe it is inappropriate to place the Islamic center so close to the former site of the World Trade Towers.
Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said he believes building a Muslim mosque next to Ground Zero would be equivalent to building a Japanese Shinto shrine next to the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor.
“I defend the right for Muslims to have places of worship in lower Manhattan, but not at Ground Zero,” Land said on the syndicated NPR program. “Polls show that 61 percent of people in New York don’t want a mosque built there. The right to religious freedom doesn’t include the right to have a religious worship place wherever you want it.”
When asked if his stance was prompting expressions of bigotry toward those of the Islamic faith, Land said the SBC has consistently defended religious freedom.
Aziz Poonawalla, author of BeliefNet’s City of Brass blog and a Muslim, argued on the program that prejudice against Islam was behind the perspective that a Muslim worship center should not be built near Ground Zero, a bias that would not exist if it were any other religion at the center of the discussion.
In response to Poonawalla’s “prejudice” comment, Land referenced the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“The people who attacked the towers were not doing so in the name of another faith,” Land said. “Let’s deal with historical reality. These people claimed to be doing this in the name of Islam.”
Land said he realizes that most of the people killed by Islamic death cults are fellow Muslims, but the idea of building a mosque that close to Ground Zero is still hurtful and painful to those who lost loved ones in the Sept. 11 attacks. Recent press reports indicate that human remains are still being found at the site where construction work has made some areas now accessible.
There is Supreme Court precedent for his stance, Land said, pointing to the 1997 Supreme Court case, City of Boerne v. Flores, in favor of the Texas city’s refusal to allow a Catholic church to expand its structure. The court placed the need to preserve the historical nature of the town historic square ahead of the church’s desire to build, he said.
“That was a community decision and that’s where the mosque at Ground Zero comes into play,” Land explained.
The New York Landmarks Commission voted unanimously (9-0) to move forward with plans to build the mosque two blocks away from Ground Zero.
In an unrelated move, New York Gov. David Patterson has offered developers an alternative site in New York City to build the mosque.
Laurie Goodstein, national religion correspondent for The New York Times and guest on the show, said the people who support building a mosque at Ground Zero want it to be a symbolic presence, opposing radical forms of Islam.
“These are people who have spent the past 10 years since 9/11 doing everything they can to denounce violence, to show the other side of Islam and to be bridge builders and peace makers,” Goodstein said.
Opposition to the construction of mosques is not confined to New York City. Across the U.S. — from Murfreesboro, Tenn., to Temecula, Calif. — communities are dealing with the same issue. A plan to add a 63-foot minaret to a Muslim community association facility in Santa Clara, Calif., is being challenged by citizens there.
When asked about Muslims and their right to religious expression in the U.S., Land said Islamic believers have a right to have their own places of worship.
“It’s not just freedom of religion for American religions; it’s freedom of religion for everyone,” Land said. “But, I would be much happier to see a mosque in New York City built one-third or one-half of a mile away from Ground Zero as opposed to two blocks away.”
Elizabeth Wood is a writer for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.