Americans United in August warned that New York Gov. David Paterson’s proposal to offer public property to relocate the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” raises serious constitutional issues and could spark litigation.
Paterson made the proposal after a prolonged public debate over construction of an Islamic community center two blocks from the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack in lower Manhattan. An Islamic group hopes to spend $10 million to rehabilitate an abandoned clothing store.
Although the proposed structure is often referred to as a mosque, it is actually a cultural center. It would include a gym, meeting space and a room for worship.
Some conservatives, among them Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, have objected to the plan, asserting that it is insensitive to build an Islamic facility near the site. Supporters of the project replied that the Islamic group in question is moderate and has condemned terrorism.
In response to the controversy, Paterson offered the Muslim group public land elsewhere in the city.
That’s not the answer, said AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn.
“I understand that some people are not happy with the prospect of an Islamic center opening in Manhattan, but relocating it to public property raises significant legal issues,” said Lynn. “Whether the governor is talking about a gift of public land or a sweetheart deal that gives one religious group a special right to purchase government property, it’s wrong.
“In America,” continued Lynn, “government does not subsidize religion or give religious groups preferential treatment.”
The solution, Lynn said, is to respect the Muslim group’s right to build its center on private property using private funds.
“Local authorities in Manhattan have cleared the way for construction of the Islamic center,” Lynn said. “It’s up to the Islamic group to decide whether they want to proceed. I’m sorry that this situation has become so politicized.”