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Baker

Mosque Decision Needs Time

Hunter Baker, Associate Dean of Arts & Science
Sep 1, 2010

The United States is deservedly proud of its constitutional rights and freedoms. We essentially invented the institutional separation of church and state. This separation is not equivalent to constitutionally mandated secularism even though judges often act as though it is.

The first freedom listed in our bill of rights is religious liberty. The state does not establish churches. Nor does it abridge the free exercise of religion. Obviously, there are limits. We do not permit every permutation of religious activity because some acts (such as human sacrifice, to use an extreme example) imperil the peace and safety of the community. But the freedom is broad. We recognize that religion is special and that we ought not make people choose between God and Caesar if it can be avoided.

At one time, religious freedom in the United States was almost exclusively a matter for Christians to think about. Today, we are an amazingly diverse nation with religionists of all kinds living together in communities across the land: Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and many others. The religious freedom available in America attracts people to our shores. Though there are tensions from time to time, we have learned to accommodate each other.

Today, our emphasis on tolerance and freedom is being tested with the proposed construction of a mosque very close to the site of a mass murder carried out by Muslim extremists on 9-11. How should we feel? What should we do?

Many suggest that we should reaffirm our commitment to religious liberty and tolerance by treating the mosque like any other proposed hall of worship near the Ground Zero site. By so doing, they say, we will show the world that we are proud of our values and that we are an enlightened people. I am not certain these voices are wrong.

At the same time, however, discomfort grows. The building of a mosque near ground zero feels too much like a monument marking a triumph. Do we yet know the motives for choosing that site for a mosque? Should it matter according to our principles?

There are other questions that must be considered. How can the families of the victims of 9/11 not see the building of a mosque as a huge insult? And what message do we send to aggressive Islamists if we permit the structure? We may think we are saying, "See, we are committed to our values of freedom and tolerance." But is that what they will hear? Will they instead receive a different message? Something like, "We are spiritually and psychologically spent. And we don't know what we believe anymore. Have your way." Until we understand better, granting permission for the building of a mosque so near the location of the greatest triumph of modern Islamist terrorism is a step we should not take.

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 27 edition of the Jackson Sun