The so-called Ground Zero Mosque occupied the headlines over the weekend, following President Obama's endorsement of the group's right to build the mosque. Although Obama plainly limited his comments to a discussion of religious freedom and equality, the media reported the story with a much broader sweep. According to most media reports, Obama had, in fact, endorsed the decision making behind the location of the mosque.
Yesterday, he clarified his remarks, which led to another round of botched media reporting. Now, Obama has supposedly "walked back" or "narrowed" the scope of his comments. He did no such thing.
The Bloggacuda Enters the Fray
Liberals and conservatives alike have criticized Obama's imaginary walk-back. Conservatives, however, now argue that Obama should express his opinion regarding the "wisdom" of the project. The Bloggacuda herself -- Sarah Palin -- scribbled out a Facebook entry demanding that Obama state whether mosque proponents should build the mosque near ground zero.
Palin, like other conservatives, claims that she agrees that the mosque proponents have the right to build the mosque, but she argues that they should not. She claims that building the mosque will cause religious tension, and she wants Obama to enter this thicket. This is a contradictory position.
Religious Freedom Means The Government Does Not Make Decisions For Religious Groups
Religious freedom is guaranteed by the First Amendment. The US Constitution allows mosque proponents to construct the mosque if they, as Obama stated during his speech, comply with local and state laws. Generally, it is not the role of government to tell religious individuals and organizations whether and how they should exercise their constitutional rights, particularly when, as here, the government's input could have a decisive impact.
If Obama told Palin that he respects her First Amendment right to post hate essays on Facebook, but that she should not do so because she is divisive, she would not appreciate the interference. In fact, she and her minions would probably (re)accuse Obama of being a socialist, radical, communist. Nevertheless, Palin wants Obama to comment on the wisdom of a religious group's decision to locate a mosque in lower Manhattan.
Palin has a two-faced view of constitutional liberty -- as do all of the other commentators who want Obama to go more deeply into this conflict. Religious freedom means that so long as people comply with laws of general application then the government should not interfere with their religious practices. I suspect that Palin and other opponents of the mosque would cheer a decision by local authorities to block the mosque project. This, however, does not reflect an embrace of religious freedom.
If liberals and conservatives actually support religious freedom, they must accept the building of the mosque -- regardless of whether they believe it is a good idea or not. This is all Obama said during his speech. For this, I commend him. On this issue, all sides must accept a "wall of separation between mosque and state."
UPDATE: This essay was edited for clarity.
Also on Dissenting Justice:
Media Continues to Misstate Obama's Position on Mosque (Updated)
Media Misstates Obama's Position on Mosque; Obama Clarifies Stance