By Tom Fitzpatrick, ACLU of Virginia Dunn Fellow
Purportedly, the controversy over Park51, the proposed Islamic community center near Ground Zero, is less about the constitutional right of Muslim Americans to build a meeting place than about the "appropriateness" of the location.
Even Glenn Beck seemed to be thinking this when he said recently, "There is no constitutional argument over whether Muslims have the right to practice their religion. . . . What is at issue here is the wisdom of this mosque, in this place . . . with this imam."
Civil rights lawyers and the courts can breathe a sigh of relief. No proposed infringement of religious freedom here . . . move along now.
Ah, were it only so easy.
A quick scan of any newspaper, a perusal of the cable news outlets, or even a gander at my Facebook news feed gives me great concern. Although some opponents are quick to say this is not a constitutional issue, the movement to oppose Park51 strikes at the heart of religious freedom. And, that makes it very much a constitutional issue, even if Glenn Beck thinks it isn't.
This is an attack on religious freedom rooted not just in broad generalizations and misunderstandings about Islam, but also in fear of, and distaste for, a whole religion. Demands for full disclosure of funding sources, for example, presume that supporters of an Islamic center in America have ties to terrorism. Calls for the imam to prove he is a moderate Muslim presume that Islamic extremism is the norm.
While overt disdain for Islam in America is abhorrent, if the opposition came merely in the form of rhetoric, that's something we can deal with here in the land of free speech.
But the game-plan employed by opponents of the center involves more than rhetoric. Building plans for Muslim cultural centers or mosques in at least 12 states have nearly been blocked by opponents using disingenuous technical and legal arguments involving everything from obscure zoning laws to concerns about increased traffic in the vicinity. In Mayfield, Kentucky, the ploy worked when the zoning board, citing parking concerns, bowed to public pressure and reversed a previously approved building permit for a new mosque.
Fortunately these tactics failed in New York, where city officials rejected the Park51 opponents' petition to the Landmarks Preservation Commission asking it to declare the site, currently an abandoned Burlington Coat Factory, a historic landmark.
We are a nation of laws applied equally to all, regardless of religion. Whatever your religion, it is protected by the same laws that protect all religions. When Christians and Jews stand up for the right of Muslims to build a mosque, they are not just standing up for the principle of religious equality, but also protecting their right to build their own places of worship.
Park51 is only an outsized example of a growing trend to suppress Muslims in our society. Sometimes there are legitimate arguments against the building of large institutions, be it a church, synagogue or mosque, in a neighborhood. What is important is for each of us to be aware when the next religious institution wants to build in our area, and to be prepared to join the supporters when we see the detractors are using traffic or parking as a pretext for religious discrimination.
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