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Stand Up For Religious Freedom, Don't Hide Behind It

Donna Lieberman,
New York Civil Liberties Union
Louise Melling,
Deputy Legal Director and Director of Ruth Bader Ginsburg Center for Liberty,
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August 23, 2010

“Of course you have the right to build a mosque, but it is insensitive to build it there.”

This is the newest version of the call from critics of the proposed Islamic center in downtown New York City. The sentiment may at first blush seem sensitive: it recognizes the trauma of 9/11, the sacred nature of Ground Zero and the constitutional right to religious freedom. But the sentiment that the Islamic center can be built — just elsewhere — inevitably reflects a prejudice and intolerance that is in fact inconsistent with religious freedom.

To conclude that building the Islamic center near Ground Zero is insensitive, one must, consciously or not, believe that the Muslims of downtown New York City who will come to the center to pray are — by virtue of their faith — all tainted by the terrorists who committed an atrocious act in the name of Islam. How else to explain the alleged “insensitivity”?

Political leaders like Mayor Bloomberg in New York should be praised for standing up for religious freedom in the face of political pressure. But the voices of prejudice still fill the airwaves, and outright hostility toward mosques continues to flare up around the country in locations having no relation to any acts of terrorism.

Throughout our history, Jews, Protestants, Catholics and Muslims have all been victims of fear and discrimination. In the end, tolerance and fairness generally prevail. So should it here. But that means speaking up for fairness, opposing religious discrimination rooted in cultural stereotyping, and resisting those who seek to trade away our most precious values for political advantage. It means letting our political leaders know that discrimination is a losing proposition, and that adherence to the Constitution is not optional.

For our part, the ACLU will continue to defend the right of all religious denominations — from majority faiths to unpopular religions — to establish places of worship, and for Americans to pray, or not, as they choose. We will also continue to defend the right for those who object to speak their mind. At the same time, we will continue to remind people that, even as we are still healing from an indescribable wound, we cannot abandon our core values or we will have lost everything.

(Cross-posted to Open Salon and Daily Kos.)

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