Plans to built an Islamic cultural center, including a mosque, two blocks from the former World Trade Center attracted national attention. Despite the broad controversy -- with even President Obama weighing in -- it's important to recognize that it's first a local matter -- not exclusively a local matter, but primarily one.
City government cleared the way, appropriately, recognizing that despite opposition to the project being built so close to Ground Zero, the Constitution nonetheless would be meaningless if the freedom to worship was curtailed. Actually, I should have said Constitutions in the plural.
As a local issue first, the primary guidance comes from Article I, Section 3 of the New York Constitution which begins: "The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever be allowed in this state to all humankind." State constitutions are often overlooked but they are actually our primary sources of freedom. The New York Constitution is more emphatic in many respects than the United States Constitution. The First Amendment begins, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
The phrase "without discrimination of preference" in the New York Constitution is instructive. It's the state's policy that one religion should never hold preference over another nor should the state sponsor discrimination against any religion. Further, the free exercise and enjoyment of religious worship "shall forever be alllowed in [New York] to all humankind."
This left the city no choice but to approve plans for the Islamic Cultural Center so long as it complied with all other zoning and building code requirements. As Americans we can have it no other way without sacraficing our own liberties. And if we do, then terrorism won.
William Allen White, the sage of Emporia, said it best: "Liberty is the only thing you cannot have unless you are willing to give it to others." The fact that one of our great cities will not stand in the way of an Islamic Cultural Center two blocks from Ground Zero shows the world that we are better than those who will not grant the same freedom to others.
Quick, where is the Buddhist shrine in Baghdad? The Roman Catholic Cathedral in Tehran? The Mormon Temple in Damascus? The Unitarian Meeting House in Kandahar?
That an Islamic Cultural Center would be built two blocks from Ground Zero shows the world two things: First, we are better than that. The beacon of hope this nation was for oppressed people shines as much today as it has for more than two centuries. Our forefathers came here seeking religious freedom. Is it any wonder that the first part of the First Amendment addresses freedom of religion?
Second, the greatest antidote to terrorism is freedom. Freedom, freedom, freedom -- more, not less. When freedom is curtailed -- and when fear and prejudice gain dominion over us -- terrorism wins.
By granting freedom to those we may not like we gain more for ourselves. William Allen White was right: Liberty is the only thing we cannot have unless we are willing to give it to others.
And when we do, we show the world -- including those who would love nothing better than for there to be no religious freedom -- that we are better than that.