WASHINGTON — Weighing in for the first time on the emotionally charged issue, President Obama gave his blessing Friday to a Muslim group's plans to build a mosque near Ground Zero in New York, saying, "This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable."
In making his case for supporting the Cordoba House project, Obama, who once taught constitutional law, referred to the Constitution and the words of Thomas Jefferson.
However, the audience to whom he addressed his remarks looked strikingly different from the Founding Fathers: dozens of Muslim men and women in politics, government, business, academia, faith and activism, all his guests at a White House iftar, the evening meal that breaks the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan.
"As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country," Obama said. "That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances."
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He said the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks had been "a deeply traumatic event" for the nation, that emotions of opponents of the mosque project are understandable and that "we must all recognize and respect the sensitivities surrounding the development of lower Manhattan. Ground zero is, indeed, hallowed ground."
He also said that the United States has flourished because of religious freedom.
"The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are."
Obama had kept his opinion to himself since an Aug. 3 vote by a New York City landmarks commission paved the way for the project, an Islamic cultural center and house of worship. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs originally said it was a matter for the local community to decide.