Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Putting a Mosque at Ground Zero Not Protected by First Amendment

If you listen to people heartily discuss, or in some cases tiptoe around, the subject of building a mosque right beside the site of the World Trade Center, the First Amendment is often invoked... wrongly.

The gist of many opinions is that, while the builders have a First Amendment right to build there, they should decide not to based on the hurt it will cause at this particular site. I agree with the second part of that point. It is a matter of sensitivity, which has come into play historically in other similar situations.

But look at what the First Amendment says about religion:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;

Where in that is the guarantee of a right to build a house of worship anywhere one pleases? It prohibits Congress from certain actions, among them anything that would prohibit the free exercise of religion. But our Founders would not have meant that to allow anything, anywhere, any time. A congregation could not walk in during a session of Congress because they wanted to worship and sing hymns in the gallery, for example. A church would not be allowed to build next door to my house. Churches have been prohibited from ringing the carillons except at certain times.

The legal right to build this mosque does not really involve the First Amendment. It is controlled by zoning, and in this case by definitions of historic buildings. The man pushing this is responsible for following other laws as well, including those that regulate funding from certain overseas sources (no matter what kind of building is being proposed). It remains to be seen if the funding will stand up to investigation.

There is also nothing to say that people may not protest its proposed site. That does not violate the First Amendment. I hope commentators will keep the First Amendment out of these discussions, particularly when they make a passing reference to a right that is not in fact present in this context.

1 comment:

History Matters said...

A received a comment about this post that was in a tone I did not wish to have on the blog. However, I will address one point of the writer. He/she "accused" me of not being a scholar.

There are hundreds of posts on the blog, but unless my memory is worse than I think it is, I have never claimed to be a scholar. To fill out the brief information that is attached to this blog, I do have some experience in writing:
I have two advanced education degrees; I have published books, technical documents, and articles, some of which have been translated into other languages and used internationally; I have authored publications are found in syllabi in colleges and universities in the United States; and even during my military career one of my duties involved writing documents for use in our service's headquarters. But I consider myself a practical writer rather than a scholar. In addition, I have a family, work for a living, and have another very serious hobby-like avocation, all of which take up the majority of my time. This blog is an outlet for me. I intend it to be educational, as seen in the many posts where the bulk of the content is historic fact. But I reserve the right to opine as a part of some posts and even to put out posts that are entirely my opinion. (Even non-scholars have a right to express an opinion.)

But that talk of "scholar" misses the point of this blog. The men who wrote the Constitution were very intelligent and were wonderful writers. Even so, they wrote the Constitution and Bill of Rights in language that was intended to be understood by the people. The words "We the People" are large in the original script for a reason.

The entire First Amendment is:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

If anyone with a little intelligence reads the Amendment and looks at the other writings and actions of the Founders relating to it, he or she should be able to understand it quite well. I am not downplaying the value of scholarship, but the Founders apparently did not wish to have the meaning of the Constitution be clear only to those with advanced legal training.