Here is my response to the latest Texas Faith question from the Dallas Morning News Religion Blog. Read it all at:
TEXAS FAITH: Is a mosque at Ground Zero religious freedom too far?
Tue, Jul 13, 2010
The debate over a mosque near Ground Zero has rekindled questions about religious expression in a nation that treasures religious freedom. Plans for the $100 million mosque just blocks from the site of the 9/11 attack have angered the families of survivors. It's become an issue in the New York governor's race where Democrat Andrew Cuomo answered his Republican opponent's objection to the mosque this way: "What is the country about if not religious freedom?"
There are conflicts, of course - say, when religious expression violates the First Amendment (school-mandated prayer) or endangers lives (outlawing Appalachian snake handling). And there's the annual dustup over singing Silent Night in a public building, which never seems fully resolved. But the debate over the mosque is different - and raises a more fundamental question.
What are the limits to religious expression in America? Are there any? Should there be?
Our Texas Faith panelists weigh in with a thoughtful discussion on the issue:
KATIE SHERROD, Independent writer/producer
First of all, curtailing mandated prayer in public schools is not a restriction on religious expression. To the contrary, it is a defense of religious expression because it allows ALL religions to express themselves as they see fit without the state forcing non-Christians to listen to Christian prayers. Prayer in public schools is not forbidden. Any student may pray privately in any way they choose. What is forbidden is state-sanctioned prayer.
Because let's not kid ourselves -- state-mandated prayers in the USA are always Christian prayers. Imagine the uproar if Christian kids were forced to listen to an imam pray to Allah over a school loudspeaker. That is also the case with the singing of Silent Night. It's a Christian song, as are most Christmas songs of course, given that the holiday celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. Why should Jewish and Muslim school children have to sing Christian songs? Again, imagine the uproar if the school decided everyone was required to attend a Seder in the cafeteria at Passover.
The building of the mosque near Ground Zero is another case entirely. Muslims have purchased land to build a building in which Muslims will pray and have services. The people who frequent that mosque will not be forcing anyone else to worship there or to listen to their prayers. This is exactly what the First Amendment is meant to protect. People walk by all sorts of things on their way to and from Ground Zero, including profane and offensive graffiti. Having to walk by a beautiful mosque should be no more offensive than having to walk by the beautiful St. Paul's Chapel.
Timothy McVeigh, a Christian, blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing many children as well as adults. The Episcopal Cathedral is right across the street and was heavily damaged in the blast. Yet not one person objected to its being rebuilt near that Memorial because a Christian had committed that terrorist act.
Wrapping up xenophobia in outrage over 9/11 does more to dishonor the memory of those who died on that day than does the construction of mosque in a country founded on religious freedom.