Tuesday, August 3, 2010

NYC Mosque Stupidity

There is lots of stupid floating around the opposition to the proposed mosque and community center a few blocks away from Ground Zero. This excellent speech by Mayor Bloomberg highlights just a few of the most salient points. Here's an excerpt:

The simple fact is, this building is private property, and the owners have a right to use the building as a house of worship, and the government has no right whatsoever to deny that right. And if it were tried, the courts would almost certainly strike it down as a violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question: Should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here.

Go read the whole thing, which includes a very moving account of the history of religious freedom in New York. It speaks to what is best in us, as Americans. I chose this particular excerpt, because it highlights just a few of the strange contradictions in the opposition to the mosque, particularly insofar as that opposition is primarily (but clearly not exclusively, as the ADL's position demonstrates) concentrated on the political right.

(1) Private property rights -- conservatives usually think you are entitled to do what you want with your private property and are not normally sympathetic to the use of tools like historic preservation laws to block development. Yet, in this case, they have been looking for any tool to block these private owners from building a center on their private land. How long before they call for the city to use eminent domain power to block the construction of the Mosque?

(2) Our constitution protects religious exercise. Gathering and worship are core elements of that right. Conservatives have been pretty adamant in recent years about protecting the autonomy of religious groups. Although the First Amendment doesn't guarantee you the right to get land use approval to build a place of worship, it clearly protects you from having adverse land use decisions made just because the majority does not like your religion. (See, e.g., Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah) Conservatives by and large supported the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ("RLUIPA"), a federal statute that arguably provides religious organizations with a huge leg up in the land use process, particularly when it comes to the construction of places of worship. And yet, in this case, these commitments have been thrown to the wayside by a number of leading conservative figures.

(3) Localism -- Conservatives have often argued that land use questions are primarily matters of local concern. They have been at the forefront of opposing federal (and even state) interventions into the land use arena, particularly when federal or state governments have done so in an effort to protect the environment or mandate inclusionary land use policies. At its worst, this defense of localism has been a proxy for discussions about race and class. But, at its best, it has been built around a defense of localism as an affirmative conservative value rooted in questions of associational freedom and subsidiarity. In this case, however, the local community (NYC and, more specifically, the residents of lower Manhattan) has embraced the proposed development while the voices opposing the construction of the mosque and community center have disproportionately been from outside NYC and even outside the region.

At the end of the day, I'm not sure what to make of this entire issue. I suppose if opposition to the mosque were limited to the fringe of the far religious right, I'd chalk it up as a fairly unsurprising manifestation of that group's unfortunate authoritarian and theocratic tendencies. But many of the voices raised in opposition to the mosque (Giuliani, Gingrich, Limbaugh, etc.) are not people I particularly associate with religious conservatism. I'm sure this will sound like concern trolling coming from me, but I think this mosque episode goes to the heart of what's troubling about the contemporary political landscape on the right. The rise of a kind of visceral, racialized identity politics on the right, even among seemingly mainstream conservative figures (or at least people treated as such by the media, such as Gingrich and Guiliani), is more than a little frightening. And there seems to be no core conservative principle that is not subject to being jettisoned to rile up the base or gain some short-term political advantage. I have no idea where all this is headed, but it doesn't seem like it's going to have a happy ending. I feel like all I can do is watch and worry.

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