Government Shouldn't Prevent Construction of Ground Zero Mosque

It was a hot, muggy June afternoon when a state GOP functionary sat down with us to explain a fairly basic premise for our 2010 election strategy. “You only have six things you need to talk about,” he said. “The first three are jobs and the last three are the Obama deficit.”

They struck me as wise words, and he had been passing them on to candidates for various offices far and wide. New York still holds a generous advantage for Democrats in the generic ballot and our sizable swing vote population is distrustful of Republicans on the best of days. But in 2010 the internal polling was showing a promising shift. Those critical moderate and independent voters were out of work in alarming proportions. They were forgetting their worries about Christian conservatives with their hard-right agenda and seemed to be coming around to the idea that the Democrats couldn’t manage the finances of a lemonade stand, say nothing of the national public purse.

But the dog days of summer seem to have a hypnotic effect on politicians. When you’re settling down in a soft, feathery, but flammable bed of electoral possibilities, why not bust open a few cans of gasoline? Rather than sticking to "the economy, stupid," the ensuing weeks saw our Republican hopefuls dive into the type of subjects that sent the election train hurtling back toward Crazytown. We had battles brewing over gay marriage in California, repealing the 14th amendment, and perhaps the most provocative of all -- the Park 51 project, popularly known as the Ground Zero mosque in New York City.

In a way it’s hard to blame these excitable boys and girls for jumping on this particular bandwagon. Even in a state famous for opposing anti-Muslim backlash following 9/11 and largely welcoming a trial for the attackers inside their own borders, people seemed opposed to the construction of the mosque. A recent Siena poll showed more than 60% wishing the mosque builders to take their business elsewhere.

But the politicians in question, particularly New York’s GOP gubernatorial hopefuls, seemed to differ on exactly how they proposed to stop the effort and what legal grounds might be used to manage the feat. Rick Lazio expressed personal opposition and questioned where the funding was coming from. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Carl Paladino claimed that, if elected, he would use the power of eminent domain to seize the grounds and prevent construction. (On exactly what constitutional footing he would manage this was not specified.)

It was a conflicting set of arguments being mirrored across the nation. My friend and author at Outside the Beltway, attorney Doug Mataconis, recently put up a question on Twitter, pointing out that there are two strip clubs closer to Ground Zero than the proposed mosque site, and isn’t that more offensive to the hallowed ground? It’s a titillating query (pardon the intentional pun), but I have to disagree with the fundamental premise on two points. First, I like strip clubs. And second, municipalities have a lot more leeway in banning adult entertainment enterprises, should they wish to do so, than a house of worship.

Other pundits have been quick to note that it’s not always about the law in such an emotionally charged subject. The proprietor of Ladies Logic pointed out that the hoi polloi will often have a hard time thinking like constitutional scholars at a time like this, saying, “a church or synagogue built in this place (Ground Zero) would not get a second thought. ... However, neither radical Christians nor radical Jews flew airplanes into the World Trade Center towers on 9/11.”

In the end, that’s what the kerfuffle over the mosque seems to boil down to. You can talk about the questionable background of the imam leading the project or the insensitivity of the location, but eventually the question comes back to the law. If we are to push back on this construction project, who will do the pushing and what tools are at their disposal?

Any individual (or massive group thereof) should be able to protest the location and make their displeasure known to the project’s sponsors. In particular, we might wonder where the voices of New York’s large and mostly moderate Muslim community have gone. In the interest of harmony in the community, might they not push for a less controversial location? If such measures are effective and the builders decide to relocate, the story comes to an end. But since they show no signs of moving to less objectionable digs uptown, where do the protesters go from there?

Assuming we won’t be calling for pitchforks and torches, the only other available avenue would be the courts. And at that point, no matter how many complex tales you choose to weave around this situation, you’re asking the government to step in and prevent the construction of a place of worship. Phrases leap to mind which include, “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

Yes, there were Muslims involved in the 9/11 attacks. But were they these Muslims? There have been imams in the background getting up to who knows what business. But are any of the individuals involved with the construction of this facility charged with a crime? If the answers to these questions are no, it seems that the courts will have a tough row to hoe in satisfying the public complaint.

But hey ... it’s the summer season for politics and everyone wants a slice of the pie. And besides, those unemployment figures and deficit totals make for a pretty boring read at the beach.