NASHVILLE, Tenn. (ABP) -- The head of the Southern Baptist Convention's moral concerns agency said Aug. 14 that he disagreed with President Obama's assessment that Muslims have a constitutional right to build the so-called Ground Zero mosque in New York City.
"As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country," Obama said Aug. 13 at an Iftar dinner at the White House marking the start of Ramadan. "And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances."
"I respectfully disagree with the president," Richard Land, president of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission said on his weekly radio program, "Richard Land Live."
"I take a back seat to no one when it comes to religious freedom and religious belief and the right to express that belief, even beliefs that I find abhorrent," said Land, the denomination's top representative on moral, ethical and religious-liberty concerns. "But what I don't do is I don't say that religious freedom means that you have the right to build a place of worship anywhere that you want to build them."
Land cited a 1997 Supreme Court ruling that upheld the right of officials in Boerne, Texas, to refuse permission for a Catholic parish to expand its building in a district designated for historic preservation.
Land said Muslims have every right to build another mosque in Lower Manhattan if they feel they need one, but the right to build it near Ground Zero "is something that is not protected by the First Amendment."
"The people of America have a right to say that this place, Ground Zero, has been made sacred by the enormity of the sacrifice of the 3,000 people who died there, such that we have to treat it differently than we would anyplace else," he said.
Land said erecting the mosque would be "terribly hurtful" not only to the families of those who lost loved ones on 9/11 but to millions of Americans who lived through the trauma of the terrorist attacks.
"I am well aware of the fact that the vast majority of Muslims do not support the suicide attackers, the terrorists, who attacked the buildings at 9/11," Land said. "But it is a fact … that every single one of the people who participated in that terrorist attack were doing so in the name of their understanding of Islam."
The Baptist leader cited a Washington Post op-ed article by Charles Krauthammer observing that present day Germany is no longer Nazi, "yet despite contemporary Germany's innocence, no German of goodwill would even think of proposing a German cultural center at, say, Treblinka."
"Or at Dachau or at Buchenwald or at Auschwitz," Land added. "To speak in terms of rapprochement or of great sensitivity of bring people together, it just simply would be too hurtful."
Land said it be would similar to constructing a floating Shinto shrine next to the U.S.S. Arizona memorial, because the Japanese pilots prayed to Shinto gods before departing to bomb Pearl Harbor, or to erect a memorial to American war dead at Hiroshima.
"It is just as inappropriate to have a Muslim mosque and cultural center that close, within a stone's throw -- when I was a young man, I could have thrown a rock from Ground Zero and hit this building that they want to use as a cultural center and a mosque," Land said. "It is a place that is so close to Ground Zero that one of the engines from one of the jets that hit the Twin Towers, the World Trade Center, one of the engines from one of the planes came to rest in this building."
"It is insensitive to want to build this here," Land said. "If they really want to create reconciliation and they really want to create intercultural understanding, then they would understand the sensitivity of this issue, and they would decide to accept Gov. Patterson of New York's generous offer to build a mosque on land a few blocks away that is currently owned by the State of New York."
Land said the "classic example" of that kind of sensitivity occurred when Pope John Paul II asked Carmelite nuns to move from a convent at Auschwitz in the 1980s. The nuns felt their mission was to pray for souls taken at the former Nazi death camp, but Jewish groups complained that it looked like an attempt to Christianize a place of Jewish suffering.
In the end, Land said, the pope said to the nuns, "No, I don't question your motive, but it's just going to be too hurtful."
Another Baptist ethicist, meanwhile, took an opposite view. Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics, said in an "On Faith" online Washington Post column that a mosque near Ground Zero "would be an American landmark to our nation's commitment to religious freedom for all."
In an Aug. 13 editorial on EthicsDaily.com, Parham noted that Baptists in both England and America were strong proponents of religious liberty for all, including "Turks" and pagans.
Referring to polls showing that a majority of Americans oppose the mosque, Parham commented: "I wonder if Americans in general and Baptists in particular are in favor of religious liberty only in theory and seldom in practice."