PANAMA CITY, Fla. — President Obama said on Saturday that in defending the right of Muslims to build a community center and mosque near Ground Zero he “was not commenting” on “the wisdom” of that particular project, but rather trying to uphold the broader principle that government should “treat everybody equally” regardless of religion.
Mr. Obama, who is visiting the Gulf Coast with his wife and younger daughter for a brief overnight stay, made his comments at the Coast Guard district station here. On Friday night, he used the White House iftar, a sunset dinner celebrating the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, to weigh in on the mosque controversy. In clarifying his remarks, Mr. Obama was apparently seeking to address criticism that he is using his presidential platform to promote a particular project that has aroused the ire of many New Yorkers. And on Saturday at least three prominent Republicans spoke out against Mr. Obama’s stance.
White House officials said earlier in the day that Mr. Obama was not trying to promote the project, but rather sought more broadly to make a statement about freedom of religion and American values. “In this country we treat everybody equally and in accordance with the law, regardless of race, regardless of religion,” Mr. Obama said at the Coast Guard station. “I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That’s what our country is about.
“And I think it’s very important as difficult as some of these issues are that we stay focused on who we are as a people and what our values are all about.”