By Sandhya Bathija
There’s been a new development in the situation over the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque.”
Yesterday, New York Gov. David Paterson came up with an idea that he felt would be a compromise in the recent uproar over the building of an Islamic community center in lower Manhattan.
A Muslim group’s recent purchase of a building near the 9/11 site has some Americans, including TV preacher Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice, up in arms because they feel it’s a “slap in the face” to victims of the attack.
I personally don’t see how you can blame an entire religion (with an estimated 1.5 billion members) because of the violent actions of an extremist faction within it. But that viewpoint seems lost on some folks. (It’s deplorable that some politicians – Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, etc. — are shamelessly exploiting this issue for political gain.)
Paterson has tried to find a middle ground. He believes the Muslim group has a legal right to build the center at the proposed site, but he has offered an alternative that might be more “sensitive.”
“Frankly,” Paterson said at a press conference, “if the sponsors were looking for property anywhere at a distance that would be such that it would accommodate a better feeling among the people who are frustrated, I would look into trying to provide them with the state property they would need.”
You read that right – Paterson’s solution is to construct the religious building on government land. Why didn’t anyone else think of that already?
Maybe because giving public land to a religious group – or even selling it on a preferred basis – would be unconstitutional.
Barry Lynn, AU’s executive director, and Boston University School of Law Professor Jay Wexler slammed the governor’s suggestion in an article at Salon.com.
“I think the governor should really back off this idea,” said Lynn. “When a private group wants to build a center that contains a mosque on their own private property they have a right to do that.
“But the law bars the use of government funds to house an entity that is going to be used in part for religious purposes,” Lynn explained.
Wexler said Patterson’s plan could be successfully challenged in court.
“They’re really giving government aid to religion – the aid is the break between fair market value and whatever they’re selling it for,” he said. “That’s almost like they’re giving a bunch of money to a mosque.”
When Congress decided to grant a parcel of land in Mississippi to a Baptist church back in 1811, President James Madison vetoed the measure. Madison, considered the Father of the Constitution, said such aid “comprises a principle and precedent for the appropriation of funds of the United States for the use and support of religious societies, contrary to the article of the Constitution which declares that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting a religious establishment.’”
Giving government land to religious groups is still unconstitutional today, Gov. Patterson.
Fortunately, Paterson’s idea is so patently unconstitutional it probably won’t see the light of day. Allowing the government to provide land or in any way fund the building of a house of worship violates the basic American principle that religion and government must remain separate.
This should outrage Americans, yet it’s hardly caused a stir. At the same time, when a private group wants to build a religion-based community center on private land, some find cause for a public uproar.
All this goes to show that many Americans could benefit from another glance at the Constitution, and that includes Paterson.