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SBC Leader Tries to Articulate Anti-Mosque Position

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As political and religious leaders debate whether a proposed Islamic center should be allowed to be built blocks from Ground Zero, a Southern Baptist leader tries to defend his opposition to the center.

Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, leads the nation’s largest Protestant denomination’s efforts in defending religious liberty rights. However, Land remains a strong voice against the right of Muslims to build the proposed center.

Land began an interview with EthicsDaily.com by quickly asserting that the site stands too close to Ground Zero and therefore is inappropriate for housing a mosque. Land argued the site is “at best two blocks away, depends on how you calculate it.” He proposed that moving it “four or five blocks” would make the site acceptable.

In reality, the proposed center would sit more than two blocks from the closest corner of the 16-acre World Trade Center complex that includes many buildings that survived the attack nearly nine years ago. The center actually would be about six blocks from the closest of the two main towers hit by airplanes. Such distance from the towers fits with Land’s desired distance, but he remains opposed to the site.

When Land complained during the interview that the site was within eyesight of Ground Zero, it was pointed out to him that there were actually tall buildings that prevented the site from being seen from Ground Zero. Yet, he still maintained that the site was too close.

Following the EthicsDaily.com interview, Land spoke on the radio program “Interfaith Voices” and offered a slightly modified version of his “within eyesight” argument.

“There shouldn’t be one within, uh, eyeshot or earshot,” Land argued. “And if it weren’t for the interference of buildings, this would be within the, what’s being proposed would be within eyesight.”

Land also said during the EthicsDaily.com interview that President Obama should have urged the center’s leaders to move the proposed location a few blocks away because Ground Zero is “hallowed ground.”

On the “Interfaith Voices” radio program, Land reiterated his argument that the center should not be built at the proposed site because “this is hallowed ground.” Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, challenged Land, arguing that although Ground Zero is “hallowed ground,” the site of the proposed center is not. Land then quickly backtracked, claiming, “I’m talking about Ground Zero; I’m not talking about the place where the mosque is.” Land did not explain, then, why he still opposed the center if its site is not “hallowed ground.”

During the EthicsDaily.com interview, Land said he found it “quite encouraging” that a recent poll found that most Americans believe Muslims have the right to build a mosque at the site but that most do not think it should be built there.

“I think that’s very healthy,” Land added. “I think it shows that we understand religious freedom, we understand that religious freedom applies to everybody, but that good taste and common sense says it shouldn’t be built there.”

However, Land’s position actually differs from that of the Americans he praised. Rather than taking the position that he did not like the site but Muslims still had the right to build there, Land instead argued that if the proposed center’s leaders did not move to another location, then government leaders should intervene to prevent construction. This position places Land at odds with the majority of Americans he praised.

“The mosque should not be built that close to Ground Zero,” Land said. “If they insist in building it there, then I would encourage government officials to stop them.”

Perhaps the largest area of contradiction occurred as Land attempted to explain why he had previously cited a Supreme Court decision to justify his anti-mosque position – even though he opposed the Supreme Court decision.

In 1997, the Supreme Court ruled in City of Boerne v. Flores that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was unconstitutional, and thus local city officials could prevent a Catholic church from expanding its building in the city’s historic district. The bipartisan law, passed in 1993 and signed by then-President Bill Clinton, demanded government officials demonstrate a “compelling interest” before interfering or restricting religious freedoms.

At the time, Land harshly criticized the decision.

“Our free exercise rights as American citizens are in peril,” Land said in 1997, adding that it was “the worst religious liberty decision of the last 50 years.”

But Land has invoked the decision in recent interviews to justify his position that government officials should act to prevent the proposed Islamic center from being built on the current site.

During his interview with EthicsDaily.com, Land argued that although he still disagreed with the Boerne decision, he used it as an example since everyone must be expected to follow the rule of law.

Land added that he hoped to see the compelling state interest standard reinstated.

“I’m a strong, strong believer in the compelling interest test, which was rejected by the [Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v.] Smith decision and reiterated in the Boerne decision,” Land said as he lamented the Supreme Court decisions for “lowering the standard from what I consider to be a high hurdle to be a speed bump.”

“I happen to think that the compelling state interest standard is the best standard that we can have to protect religious freedom,” Land added.

When asked if there was a compelling interest that would justify New York City officials intervening, Land paused to consider the question.

“Uh, possibly, but I wouldn’t want to, I’d want to think about that a long time,” Land responded. “There’s certainly not the same kind of compelling interest that there is in some cases, but, huh, I just think it’s, it shouldn’t be built there.”

Land was recently appointed to another term on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. The commission, which monitors religious freedom rights in other countries, is already facing an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint filed by a Muslim who alleges the Commission on International Religious Freedom discriminates against Muslims.

Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.