On the same day Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Gov. David Paterson squared off on the development of an Islamic cultural center just blocks from Ground Zero, the president took a clear side, turning the controversy from a local one, as CBS 2′s Kathryn Brown reports, to a national one.
President Obama left no room for interpretation, forcefully endorsing the plan to build a mosque near Ground Zero and telling a group of Muslims the issue goes to the heart of America’s core values.
“Let me be clear: as a citizen and as a president I believe Muslims have a right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country, and that includes the right to build a house of worship and community center on private property in Lower Manhattan,” he said.
“This is America and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable,” he said.
At the annual White House dinner celebrating the Islamic Holy month of Ramadan, the president weighed in for the first time on the politically and emotionally charged issue, but his stance runs counter to the majority of Americans who oppose the plan to build a mosque steps from where the twin towers fell.
Debra Burlingame, co-founder of the group “9/11 Families For A Safe & Strong America,” argued “Muslims have worshipped in New York without incident both before and after the attacks of 9/11. This controversy is not about religious freedom.”
Burlingame excoriated the president, saying he “has abandoned America at the place where America’s heart was broken nine years ago, and where her true values were on display for all to see. Since that dark day, Americans have been asked to bear the burden of defending those values, again and again and again. Now this president declares that the victims of 9/11 and their families must bear another burden. We must stand silent at the last place in America where 9/11 is still remembered with reverence or risk being called religious bigots.”
Opponents also wasted no time firing back at the president’s remarks. Long Island Congressman Peter King voiced his anger on CBS radio.
“For the President of the United States to stand by those who want to build this mosque, to me just shows that the president is giving in to political correctness. He’s not doing the right. He’s not doing the moral thing. What he’s doing is absolutely wrong,” he said.
Earlier in the week, Gov. Paterson tried to diffuse an increasingly heated argument by suggesting the state could help developers find a new location for the mosque. “The reality is that I hope that the type of cultural understanding that they’re trying to promote when they build this center could be practiced right now.”
Mayor Bloomberg who has been a fierce advocate for the mosque swiped back.
“The governor really does try to make our lives better but probably not the number one expertise that he has is in site selection and that’s a nice way to put it.”
And with Friday night’s developments, the controversy went from a local one to a topic being debated across the country.
“And let us also remember who we’re fighting against and what we’re fighting for. Our enemies respect no religious freedom,” Mr. Obama said.
“We are stunned by the president’s willingness to disregard what Americans should be proud of: our enduring generosity to others on 9/11-a day when human decency triumphed over human depravity. On that day, when 3,000 of our fellow human beings were killed in barbaric act of raw religious intolerance unlike this country had ever seen, Americans did not turn outward with hatred or violence, we turned to each other, armed with nothing more than American flags and countless acts of kindness,” Burlingame said.
“In a breathtakingly inappropriate setting, the president has chosen to declare our memories of 9/11 obsolete and the sanctity of Ground Zero finished. No one who has lived this history and felt the sting of our country’s loss that day can truly believe that putting our families through more wrenching heartache can be an act of peace,” she added.