Religious Liberty and the Islamic Community Center

For some time the news has been filled with debates over a proposed Islamic community center (not a mosque) to be built near Ground Zero in New York City. On the one hand, the usual suspects in the Republican Party and, more surprisingly, the Anti-Defamation League, have opposed the center as an insult to the victims of the September 11th terrorist attacks. On the other hand, American Muslims have defended the center as a perfectly legitimate outreach into the community, as the Islamic equivalent of the YMCA.

The debate, however, has taken a far nastier turn. Opponents of the community center have attempted to use the power of the state to prevent its construction. One attempt has tried to declare the existing building on the site a landmark, to prevent the property from being developed. Another, only slightly less invidious attempt, has offered state funding if the center would be built further from Ground Zero. (It is worth noting in passing the hypocrisy of politicians and voters who rail against state interference in the economy and society yet have no qualms about using state power to interfere in this case.)

The question at issue is not whether one would wish for an Islamic community center to be built at the proposed location. The question is this: Should the state have the power to prevent the free use of private property for a religious purpose?

The answer is no. If that answer is not obvious, then I recommend Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s August 3 speech and Melissa Rogers’s essay for the Washington Post. That answer is required by the basic principles of our republic and, I believe, by the implications of the gospel. To their shame, it is an answer too few Christians, and in particular too few evangelicals, have been willing to give.