NEW YORK – A city panel cleared the way Tuesday for the construction near ground zero of a mosque that has caused a political uproar over religious freedom and Sept. 11 even as opponents vowed to press their case in court.
The Landmarks Preservation Commission voted unanimously to deny landmark status to a building two blocks from the World Trade Center site that developers want to tear down and convert into an Islamic community center and mosque. The panel said the 152-year-old lower Manhattan building isn’t distinctive enough to be considered a landmark.
The decision drew praise from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who stepped before cameras on Governor’s Island with the Statue of Liberty as a backdrop shortly after the panel voted and called the mosque project a key test of Americans’ commitment to religious freedom.
“The World Trade Center site will forever hold a special place in our city, in our hearts,” said Bloomberg, a Republican turned independent. “But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves, and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans, if we said no to a mosque in lower Manhattan.”
The vote was a setback for opponents of the mosque, who say it disrespects the memory of those killed at the hands of Islamic terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001. Jeers and shouts of “Shame on you” could be heard after the panel’s vote.
The American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative advocacy group founded by the Rev. Pat Robertson, announced it would challenge the panel’s decision in state court today.
ACLJ attorney Brett Joshpe said the group would file a petition alleging that the landmarks panel “acted arbitrarily and abused its discretion.”
The proposed mosque has emerged as a national political issue, with prominent Republicans from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich lining up against it. The Anti-Defamation League, the nation’s most prominent Jewish civil rights group, known for advocating religious freedom, shocked many groups when it spoke out against the mosque last week.
The League said building the Islamic center “in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain – unnecessarily – and that is not right.”
Bloomberg said Tuesday that denying religious freedom to Muslims would play into terrorists’ hands. He said firefighters and other first responders who died in the Sept. 11 attacks had done so to protect the U.S. Constitution.
“In rushing into those burning buildings, not one asked, ‘What god do you pray to? What beliefs do you hold?’ ” Bloomberg said of the first responders. “We do not honor their lives by denying the very constitutional rights they died protecting.”
Former Rep. Rick Lazio, a Republican running for governor of New York, attended the commission meeting with a handful of opponents to the mosque, which is being developed by a group called the Cordoba Initiative.
“This is not about religion,” Lazio said. “It’s about this particular mosque called the Cordoba Mosque, it’s about it being at ground zero, it’s about it being spearheaded by an imam who has associated himself with radical Islamic causes and has made comments that should chill every single American, frankly.”
Lazio said the group’s imam, Feisal Abdul Rauf, had refused to call the Palestinian group Hamas a terrorist organization. Rauf also said in a “60 Minutes” interview televised shortly after Sept. 11 that “United States policies were an accessory to the crime that happened.”
The Cordoba Initiative says on its website that its goal is to foster a better relationship between the Muslim world and the West, “steering the world back to the course of mutual recognition and respect and away from heightened tensions.”
“We believe it will be a place where the counter-momentum against extremism will begin,” the imam’s wife, Daisy Khan, told the Associated Press on Friday. “We are committed to peace.”
The center’s board will include members of other religions, the project’s backers said. There also will be a Sept. 11 memorial to the victims of the attacks, Khan said.
The commission’s decision not to designate the existing building as a landmark means that the developers can tear it down and start from scratch. If the building had been declared a landmark, they could have created a smaller mosque and community center there.