Politics & Policy

Sestak Punts on Ground Zero Mosque

At a campaign event in Philadelphia yesterday, Joe Sestak, appearing with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, offered what was essentially a de facto endorsement of the proposed “Ground Zero Mosque.” A recent CNN poll puts public opposition among New Yorkers at 68 percent.

Sestak, in responding to a question on the mosque, said: 

I strongly believe in the constitutional right of religious freedom and in the separation of church and state applying equally to everyone. Those are rights that I defended for 31 years in that fine U.S. Navy. This is an issue for New York to resolve as long as it respects those constitutional rights.

In appearing with Michael Bloomberg — and, indeed, in being endorsed by him – Sestak opened himself up to becoming a part of a national debate where Republicans are voicing discontent about the location, rather than the existence, of the mosque, and Democrats are signaling an interest in claiming the mantle of religious liberty and civil rights.

Bill McGurn distilled the mosque debate earlier this month in his op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, saying:

Even those who favor this new Islamic Center surely can appreciate why some American feelings are rubbed raw by the idea of a mosque at a place where Islamic terrorists killed more than 2,700 innocent people.  …

On the other hand, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is right about the law: Our freedom of religion means nothing if it doesn’t mean freedom of religion for all. […]

Yet not all big questions can—or should—be reduced to legal right. Living together as neighbors in a free and inescapably diverse society requires more skills than just knowing how to hire sharp lawyers. Sometimes it requires leaders willing to sound a grace note, even yielding to the feelings of others who may not see our plans the same way we do.

In other words, the two sides in this debate, the “please put it somewhere else!” versus the “but they have the legal right!” crowds are talking at cross purposes.

For their part, the two people at the heart of this center–Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and his wife, Daisy Khan–defend the center as an antidote to 9/11. “Our religion has been hijacked by the extremists,” Ms. Khan told National Public Radio, “and this center is going to create that counter-momentum which will amplify the voices of the moderate Muslims.”

Perhaps. But it’s hard to argue with the Anti-Defamation League’s assessment that the controversy created by building the center at this location “is counterproductive to the healing process.”

This is a controversy exacerbating a political rawness on both sides of the aisle, and Joe Sestak does not stand to gain many votes by declaring “present” in the debate. 

Pennsylvanians were touched on 9/11 in Shanksville in the same way New Yorkers were, and in the same way those in the Pentagon were. Sestak isn’t speaking to them by implicitly endorsing the concept while refusing to speak to its controversial nature.

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