Panama City Beach, Fla. Weighing his words carefully on a fiery political issue, President Barack Obama said Saturday that Muslims have the right to build a mosque near New York’s ground zero, but he did not say whether he believes it is a good idea to do so.
Obama commented during a trip to Florida, where he expanded on a Friday night White House speech asserting that Muslims have the same right to freedom of religion as everyone else in America.
The president’s statements thrust him squarely into a debate that he had skirted for weeks and could put Democrats on the spot three months before midterm elections where they already were nervous about holding control of the House and maybe even the Senate. Until Friday, the White House had asserted that it did not want to get involved in local decision-making.
The White House quickly followed up on Obama’s latest comments on the matter, with Obama spokesman Bill Burton saying that the president wasn’t backing off in any way from the remarks he made Friday.
“What he said last night, and reaffirmed today, is that if a church, a synagogue or a Hindu temple can be built on a site, you simply cannot deny that right to those who want to build a mosque,” Burton said.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent who has been a strong supporter of the mosque, welcomed Obama’s White House speech as a “clarion defense of the freedom of religion.”
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who was among those who met with Obama on Saturday, lauded the president’s position. Crist is running for the U.S. Senate as an independent.
“I think he’s right — I mean you know we’re a country that in my view stands for freedom of religion and respect for others,” Crist said after the Florida meeting with Obama and other officials. “I know there are sensitivities and I understand them. This is a place where you’re supposed to be able to practice your religion without the government telling you you can’t.”
Others were quick to pounce on Obama’s statements.
In a statement Saturday, House Minority Leader John Boehner said the decision to build the mosque wasn’t an issue of religious freedom, but a matter of respect.
“The fact that someone has the right to do something doesn’t necessarily make it the right thing to do,” Boehner said. “That is the essence of tolerance, peace and understanding.”
Added Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y.: “President Obama is wrong. It is insensitive and uncaring for the Muslim community to build a mosque in the shadow of ground zero.”
Democratic Senate candidate Jeff Greene of Florida took Obama’s Friday speech to mean the president supports the construction.
“President Obama has this all wrong and I strongly oppose his support for building a mosque near ground zero especially since Islamic terrorists have bragged and celebrated destroying the Twin Towers and killing nearly 3,000 Americans,” said Greene. “Freedom of religion might provide the right to build the mosque in the shadow of ground zero, but common sense and respect for those who lost their lives and loved ones gives sensible reason to build the mosque someplace else.”
The mosque would be part of a $100 million Islamic community center two blocks from where nearly 3,000 people perished when hijacked jetliners slammed into the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001.
The proposed construction has sparked debate around the country that has included opposition from top Republicans including Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich as well as the Jewish civil rights group the Anti-Defamation League.
Obama’s Friday comment was taken by some to mean that he strongly supports the building of an Islamic center near the site of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, something he never said.