By Sandhya Bathija
Just when the hubbub over the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” seemed to be dying down, some new information has come to light.
Back in the summer, when the issue was making headlines, Americans United took a strong stance: The Islamic Community Center and Mosque, a project known as Park51, was being built with private dollars on private land. The religious group had complied with applicable laws and had every right to build the center; there was no reason for the government to get involved.
But some recent developments have since complicated the matter. According to a report by CNN, the developer of Park51 has requested federal funding through the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation to support the project.
“Park51 has applied for a Lower Manhattan Development Corporation grant,” said Sharif El-Gamal, CEO of SOHO properties, and developer behind the Islamic center. El-Gamal said the money would “In part fund social service programs such as domestic violence programs, Arabic and other foreign language classes, programs and services for homeless veterans, two multi-cultural art exhibits and immigration services.”
For the first time, the controversy over Park51 has become an actual church-state issue. While it’s true the center will be performing some social services and be open to the community, it still contains a mosque and is religious in nature. Taxpayer funds should never go to support the erection of any building used wholly or in part for religious activities.
It does no good to argue that government will only pay for secular activities at the center. There will be a mosque on site where religious activities and worship will occur. All houses of worship should be erected and maintained with private funds. AU would not support the government paying to build half a church, and we won’t support it paying for half of a mosque either.
This is exactly why Americans United has been opposed to the “faith-based” initiative and any other form of government aid to religious groups. For years, Americans United has been struggling to stop the faith-based initiative, which has funneled taxpayer money to religious groups to perform social services with precious little accountability for how and where the money is spent.
Just last week, President Barack Obama issued an executive order that makes some improvements to President George W. Bush’s version of the faith-based initiative. Still, Obama failed to address the issue of whether religious organizations receiving public funds can discriminate in hiring. He also failed to require that religious groups receiving government funds keep the money separate for religious activities from the public money received for social programs.
Barry W. Lynn, AU’s executive director, expressed disappointment with Obama’s decision to not touch these issues. In testimony before members of Congress last week, he said it was necessary that houses of worship that seek federal funds form separate incorporated entities to use those funds.
“This is necessary to protect the autonomy and integrity of the religious institution as well as ensure that federal funds are not used for religious purposes,” Lynn said. “The ‘faith-based’ initiative, however, permits public funds to flow directly to houses of worship” into one large pot without any accountability.
To avoid all these constitutional concerns, it will be best if the developer of Park51 uses private dollars to fund the project. Just like all other projects and activities that are religious in nature – whether it involves a temple, synagogue or church – the government (and taxpayer funds) should stay out of it.