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A Mosque on High? Constitutional Rights vs Moral Indignition August 5, 2010

Posted by legalethicsemporium in Law, Ethics & Society, Religion.
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This week a New York City Commission voted 9-0 to deny a 19th century building historic status thereby paving the way for construction of an Islamic community center and mosque a “stone’s throw” away from the 9/11’s ground zero location.  It is interesting to note that the Commission did not explicitly evaluate the proposed Islamic Center—-but many others have passionately reacted to it.

Mayor Bloomberg is pleading for  religious tolerance and  has said that, “The attack was an act of war — and our first responders defended not only our city but also our country and our Constitution…We do not honor their lives by denying the very constitutional rights they died protecting. We honor their lives by defending those rights — and the freedoms the terrorists attacked.”

Other political figures such as Newt Gingrich,  Sarah Palin, and gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio have openly opposed the project.  They are joined by some of the families of those who died in the attack on the World Trade Center who feel that the Mosque would exist as an ongoing proverbial slap in the face.  In fact,  The American  Center for Law and Justice, a conservative advocacy group founded by the Reverend Pat Robertson, has filed suit attempting to prevent the project from moving forward.

The issue is somewhat reminiscent of the 1970’s dispute in which the town of Skokie, Illinois, home to a large number of holocaust survivors, sought to prevent a Neo-Nazi group from parading in front of the Skokie town hall.  Skokie lost that battle in the Supreme Court as the Nazi’s were represented by  the American Civil Liberties Union with an able Jewish lawyer arguing the case. (The ACLU lost a significant number of members over its defense of the First Amendment in that context.)  Ultimately, the Nazi group never marched in Skokie claiming that its preferred alternate site had become available, while others asserted that the Nazi’s feared for their lives as the tenor of the dispute had reached a fevered pitch both locally and nationally.

Which brings us to the ultimate question:  Is there ever a situation in which our moral sensitivity should trump our Constitutional rights?  The Anti-Defamation League, who actively seeks the prevention of hate crimes, has opposed the location of the mosque and stated, “Proponents of the Islamic Center may have every right to build at this site, and may even have chosen the site to send a positive message about Islam.  The bigotry some have expressed in attacking them is unfair, and wrong.  But ultimately this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right.  In our judgment, building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain – unnecessarily – and that is not right.”

This is just the beginning of the debate, as lawsuits will proceed and questions will be asked about the details of the funding for the project, the design, the purpose, etc.  The Constitution upheld the rights of the Nazi’s to assemble in a terrified community of holocaust survivors and is now at the cornerstone of the debate over the religious freedom of those who want to build a mosque and Islamic Center in the shadow of ground zero.  The Constitution embodies the basic freedoms upon which our democracy has prospered.  It provides everyone with fundamental rights, but also allows individuals the discretion to limit their own rights in deference to the sensitivities of others.

The debate about the location of the mosque exemplifies the value of free speech in our society.  The issues are being openly aired and passionately discussed. However, the parties to the debate are currently at a stand-off.  So, the question remains who will “stand down” and why?

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Comments»

1. the Success Ladder - August 7, 2010

Thank you very much for sharing this. Please keep up the good work.

2. Ruth - August 8, 2010

I am at such a “live and let live”stage in my life that I think we might consider also ‘build and let build’—but for my personal wishes, I do wish they would build somewhere else, far away from such hallowed and blood-stained ground..


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