Letter to the Editor: Read the Constitution

Samantha Steinfeld

The only reason I am writing this piece – a quasi-response to Ryan Holliday’s article “Constitutional Freedoms and the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’,” which appeared in last week’s issue of the Maroon-News – is because of the Constitution.

I was dismayed, but not at all surprised, when I read the opening line of Mr. Holliday’s article. After all, the so-called threat that opponents and protestors of the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” are apparently posing to the “freedom of religion” has been the central issue in almost every news story and debate regarding this issue for the past several months. Indeed, pundits, politicians, and even the President have weighed in on the supposed constitutional issues presented by the opposition to the Islamic community center, with the latter remarking in August that, “Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country,” implicitly equating the construction of Park51 with the free exercise of religion protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Clearly, Mr. Holliday is in good company with his understanding of the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy as one that centers around the question of religious freedom, but there is just one problem: the “freedom to build” is not the third religion clause. That is, whether or not the community center and the mosque it will house ends up being built in its current location, a new location, or even if it is not built at all, no one’s “religious freedoms” are at risk.

Before you throw the paper down in a state of outrage and righteous indignation, let me explain exactly what it is that I mean when I say that the question of whether or not the “Ground Zero Mosque” gets built has no bearing on the question of anyone’s constitutional rights. As I understand it, the “Ground Zero Mosque”-as-a-constitutional-issue rhetoric centers around a concern that if those who oppose and protest its construction are able to get enough support and influence, the building would not be built at all, thereby denying this specific downtown Manhattan Muslim community that Park51 was intended to serve a place in which to worship, discuss, and practice their faith. The lack of this space and its accompanying ramifications would thus amount to a restriction on their ability to freely exercise their religion, hence violating their constitutional rights as Americans. On the surface, that does sound pretty horrible – American citizens should not be denied the rights and protections to which they are entitled by the Constitution just because other Americans feel a certain way or hold certain prejudices. Thankfully, that is not the situation in which we find ourselves.  

I have a sneaking suspicion that most people who frame this debate in constitutional terms have not recently read the actual text of the First Amendment’s “Religion Clauses,” which state that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Stop for a second, and read that quotation again; the First Amendment explicitly prohibits Congress (i.e. the government) from making laws establishing, or impeding on people’s free exercise of, religion. So, for the “religious freedoms” of Park51’s future patrons to be under siege, the government would have to somehow be impeding its construction, either through legislation or some other type of action.

If the federal or state government were to, for example, exercise eminent domain and claim the land on which Park51 is to be built as federal property, or declare that while a mosque cannot be built, a church or synagogue must be put up in its stead, we would most certainly have an egregious constitutional violation on our hands. However, nothing of that sort is happening here. One would hope that an intelligent and learned constitutional scholar like Barack Obama would recognize the difference between a brewing constitutional issue and widespread public opposition, but alas that is not the case.

No matter what your feelings are on the “Ground Zero Mosque” issue, if you support its construction, vehemently oppose it or cannot quite make up your mind, what everyone must realize is that a significant amount of public opposition to its construction – whether or not you believe it to be based purely on ignorance and prejudice – does not a constitutional violation make. The simple fact that you may not agree with the opposition’s reasons for opposing the “Ground Zero Mosque” does not mean that they are violating the religious rights and freedoms of those whom they oppose simply by dint of their opposition.

In fact, if anyone’s freedoms are to be considered here, they should be those of the very people who are speaking out against Park51, for they are being asked, and in many cases told, to censor themselves, in at least one case by our nation’s Commander in Chief.

Along with the religious freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment is the freedom of speech, which the constitution explicitly forbids the federal government

from “abridging.”

While the “freedom to build a mosque/community center” is not protected in the Constitution, the “freedom of speech” is, and before mislabeling the “Ground Zero Mosque” issue as a “religious freedom” issue, we should stop to consider the significance of doing so for the other rights and freedoms that the First Amendment and the rest of the Constitution guarantee to all Americans.