UW Religion Today Column for Week of June 27

June 22, 2010

"Religion Today" is contributed by the University of Wyoming's Religious Studies Program to examine and to promote discussion of religious issues.

By Paul V. M. Flesher

The Pilgrims came to America so they could worship and practice their religion freely. Roger Williams believed this principle applied to everyone when he founded the colony of Rhode Island. The ideal that all people should be free to worship and practice their religion as they chose became a foundation stone of American civil liberties, enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution United States of America, and part of the "beacon of liberty" which this country has proudly shone to the world.

In this light, we should be careful about how we think about the small but vocal opposition to the proposed Islamic community center near the former World Trade Center.

The proposed Islamic center will be called Cordoba House, and will occupy a 13-story building near Ground Zero. The building will house a theater, a swimming pool, meeting rooms and a mosque. The Cordoba Institute will be the community center's sponsor and the goal is to create a vibrant cultural, artistic and intellectual institution on the model of New York's famous "93rd Street Y."

The Cordoba Institute is an established American Muslim organization dedicated to working out the place of Islam in America. They represent the "moderate Muslims" which the U.S. media and public so frequently call upon to step up and be counted.

So what's the problem?

Patrick Bahnken, head of the paramedics union says in the New York Daily News, "How will it look to have this in your face?" Well it won't be in anybody's face. The building is two blocks away in the middle of the block. In city terms, that's a long way away. It cannot be seen from Ground Zero and won't be seen by visitors unless they look for it.

Rosemary Cain expressed her thoughts this way (also in the Daily News), "I think it's despicable. That's sacred ground." Sacred to whom? Presumably, Ms. Cain means it is sacred to the families whose loved ones died there. If so, then all families who lost people there should be able to commemorate the disaster. That means not just the families of Christians and Jews, but also of Muslims, for Muslims too were among the Trade Center employees and among the rescue workers who died.

Mr. Bahnken went on to say that a Muslim center would be "a constant reminder of what they did to us on 9/11." By "they," does Mr. Bahnken refer to the one-billion Muslims around the world and blame all of them for the actions of fewer than 20? That would be like blaming all Catholics for the bombing in Oklahoma City by Irish Catholic Timothy McVeigh, as an op-ed piece in the Daily News recently observed.

Who would make the decision to stop Cordoba House? The decision would have to be taken by some wing of the government, probably a bureaucratic department.

What would this mean for religious freedom in America? It would set a precedent that a religious organization can be denied the free exercise of its beliefs, even when everything they are doing is legal. That is, a religious group could be denied free exercise of their religion just because some people object to it and are supported by a government body.

Given that our country's legal system is based on the idea that all people should be treated equally and fairly, then if one religious group can be denied free exercise of religion, all religious organizations can be denied the right to believe and practice as they choose. To prevent a branch of this nation's second largest religion, Islam, from building a religious and community center in a legal location could thus seriously damage the America we most value, and that terrorists most seek to destroy.

One of the lessons of 9/11 is we Americans are all in this together. To deny the free exercise of religion to some is ultimately to deny it to all.

The New York Daily News has covered this story extensively (http://www.nydailynews.com). For more information about Cordoba House, see http://www.cordobainitiative.org/.

Flesher is director of UW's Religious Studies Program. Past columns and more information about the program can be found on the Web at www.uwyo.edu/RelStds. To comment on this column, visit http://religion-today.blogspot.com.

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