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A vote for religious freedom: N.Y. panel clears way for mosque near Ground Zero

Wednesday, August 4, 2010; A16

THE NEW YORK City Landmarks Preservation Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to deny historic status to a 19th-century building in the shadow of Ground Zero. Doing so paved the way for the structure's demolition and the erection of a 15-story Muslim community center just two blocks from the World Trade Center site. The agency's correct call is a victory for cooler heads in city government, and for a fundamental American ideal -- freedom of religion.

The $100 million Cordoba House takes its name from the medieval Spanish city where Muslims, Jews and Christians lived in peace for 800 years. The developers promise to act in that spirit by bringing people together in peace, healing and collaboration at a center that would include a 500-seat auditorium, art exhibition space, a swimming pool and retail space. It would also include a mosque. This sparked vocal opposition not only in New York but throughout the country.

We understand the sensitivities and the emotions that have accompanied every decision related to Lower Manhattan since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But many of the protests used the murderous actions of 19 Muslim fanatics on that awful day to smear the entire religion of Islam. To succumb to that kind of bigotry would be to give in to the extremists who want to finish what those hijackers started.

Despite the demagoguery, support for the project was solid where it counted. The local community board gave its nonbinding nod in May by a vote of 29 to 1, with 10 abstentions. The City Council has the power to overturn decisions on landmark status, but the council speaker made it clear that wouldn't happen. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) never wavered. Neither did state Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo (D), who has rebuffed repeated calls to investigate the finances of the group behind Cordoba House.

Mr. Bloomberg heralded the Landmarks Commission's vote with a speech on Governors Island that paid homage to the city's fight for religious tolerance dating to the mid-1650s. Noting that the agency's vote was solely on the architectural merit of the building to be demolished, Mr. Bloomberg added, "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." He's right.

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