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Religious liberty and American Muslims

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Americans spent a tense weekend, with remembrances of 9/11 marred by public outcry over a planned Islamic community center and mosque near Ground Zero, the site of the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City. Threats to burn the Quran, fears of international unrest and accusations of Islamophobia escalated tensions even further.

According to a recent ABC/Washington Post poll, a majority of Americans oppose construction of the Muslim worship center near the World Trade Center site. Catholics are no different from the rest of the public: 67 percent object to a mosque at the proposed site; only 30 percent of Catholics support the Muslims' right to build within sight of Ground Zero.

I worry that Catholic opposition to the proposed Islamic center reflects a selective appreciation for religious freedom. If so, it's a problem that transcends the immediate controversy and ultimately undermines the very protections we seek for our own faith. Protecting religious freedom for all faith traditions makes sense from a practical standpoint. More importantly, it's the right thing to do.

The Founding Fathers, by and large religious people themselves, believed that safeguarding religious freedom made for a more virtuous citizenry.

James Madison, the author of the First Amendment, argued that the government should respect "the free exercise of religion according to the dictates of conscience" because religious observance is a "duty [owed to our] Creator" -- something that takes precedence over the demands of law.

Madison argued that religious expression must be respected even when it conflicts with our own views: "Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and to observe the religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us."

The free exercise of religion that the First Amendment protects, then, implies two related ideas: that it's important for individuals to know, love and serve God, and that it's wrong to coerce people to embrace any particular beliefs. Coercion, along with disrespect and public insult (like threatening to burn the Quran), only impedes the seeker's quest for God and harms the community.

Thomas Jefferson, like Madison, believed that the "liberty to worship our Creator in the way we think most agreeable to his will" is not "incompatible with good government." Rather, experience proved that religious liberty is the "best support" for good government. Standing in that tradition, we strengthen our American ideals when we respect the Muslim community's right to proclaim its faith and to worship according to conscience, even if that means they build a mosque near Ground Zero.

Practically speaking, though, we have other incentives as well for supporting the Muslims' religious freedom in the New York case. If we hope to protect our own religious freedom, we must secure the conscience rights of all.

The New York controversy is only the latest in a long line of cases, involving different places and different faiths, where unhappy citizens have objected to building houses of worship.

Five years ago the town of Cooper City, Fla., denied Jews the right to build an outreach center to serve local college students. Ten years ago the citizens of Belmont, Mass., sued to halt construction of a Mormon temple in their town. A few years before that the Landmark Commission in the City of Boerne, Texas, denied the local Catholic Church permission to undertake renovations that it needed so that all parishioners could attend Sunday Mass.

All faiths have a stake in protecting not just their own religious freedom, but the rights of others as well. This is a particularly awkward time for Catholics to be insensitive to Muslims' religious freedom.

Our own religious freedom as Catholics safeguards the Church's charitable works and moral voice. During the health care reform debate and in the months since, we have argued for the conscience rights of Catholic health care providers to refuse to perform or refer for abortions, and the rights of taxpayers not to fund such procedures.

In courts and legislatures around the country the Church is defending its religious freedom on practical issues surrounding sexual orientation, including adoption services, health benefits, employment and marriage rights.

It isn't just a matter of self-interest. Religious freedom is first and foremost a matter of human dignity. This is how the American legal tradition understands it. Madison stressed that religious freedom is necessary so that we, as children of God, can do our duty to our Creator.

The desire of a Muslim community to build a worship center near Ground Zero no doubt clashes with the sensibilities of many Catholics and the religious heritage of most Americans.

From the Church's standpoint, though, the religious freedom of this Muslim community is "all the more in need of protection." The American Catholic bishops have shown admirable integrity on this issue. They joined a September interfaith effort that defended the Muslims' religious freedom to build the proposed mosque. The bishops denounced the "derision, misinformation and outright bigotry being directed against America's Muslim community."

While the New York controversy seems to be moving toward a possible compromise or resolution, more tests of our commitment to religious freedom are sure to follow. As Catholics in the public square, our integrity and our hope to be credible moral voices require us to stand up for the religious freedom of all Americans -- including the Muslims at Ground Zero.

John Garvey is president of The Catholic University of America in Washington and an expert on constitutional law, religious liberty and the First Amendment.

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