New York mosque not a bad idea

Published 3:26 pm Sunday, August 29, 2010

I read the misinformed letter to the editor that was in the Aug. 21, 2009, edition of The Star-News written by Janet Ezell Beesley and would like to respond.

Ms. Beesley’s letter concerned the “Ground Zero Mosque” that has become the latest wedge issue by those seeking to divide Americans through relentless cultural wars.

I live in Manhattan, less than a mile due north of Ground Zero. The project proposed by the Cardoba Institute, an organization that seeks reconciliation between Islam and the West, is neither a mosque nor is it at Ground Zero. The project will be a community center with a board of directors comprised of Christians, Jews and Muslims. This community center is patterned after the 92nd Street Y, a Jewish community center in Manhattan, and will also be similar to a YMCA. The community center will have a basketball court, a swimming pool, and it will offer cooking courses. The top two floors will have prayer rooms.

The proposed community center is two-and-a-half blocks from the nearest corner of the Ground Zero construction site. It is even further away from the site where the memorial to 9/11 will be built as Ground Zero encompasses a four-square block area. I was at both sites this past Friday. A person standing at 51 Park, the site of the new community center, cannot see Ground Zero, and a person standing at Ground Zero cannot see 51 Park. If you start at the northeast corner of the Ground Zero site, you must walk two blocks north up West Broadway and then turn and walk a half block east on Park.

The current building at 51 Park is a former Burlington Coat Factory store that has been abandoned since Sept. 11, 2001. The building to the west of 51 Park is vacant and needs abatement. The building to the east is occupied on the first floor by the Dakota Roadhouse, a dimly lit bar with a seedy atmosphere. Also in the neighborhood are two “gentlemen’s clubs” (a euphemism for places of prostitution); an Off Track Betting office; a bodega selling lotto tickets; numerous souvenir stores and sidewalk stands selling the tackiest trinkets imaginable; and food chains including McDonalds, Dunkin’ Donuts and Subway. Not by any rational person’s imagination is 51 Park a “hallowed ground.”

The local land use/planning agency for Lower Manhattan is known as Community Board #1. This Board reviewed the plans for the community center and heard testimony from nearby residents and businesses. By a 9-to-1 vote, the board approved the project. In addition to the board, the mayor of New York supports this community center as do a majority of Manhattan residents.

In 2000, in response to a Supreme Court decision that favored a local zoning law over the right of a congregation to establish a place of worship, Congress passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. This act prohibits zoning and land marking laws that:(1) treat churches or other religious assemblies or institutions on less than equal terms with nonreligious institutions; 2) discriminate against any assemblies or institutions on the basis of religion or religious denomination;(3) totally exclude religious assemblies from a jurisdiction; or (4) unreasonably limit religious assemblies, institutions, or structures within a jurisdiction.

There are two Christian houses of worship – St. Peter’s Catholic Church and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church – that are directly across the street from Ground Zero. To deny the Cordoba Institute a right to establish an Islamic community center on its site in the neighborhood would have been a clear violation of RLUIPA.

Ms. Beesley previously wrote a letter to the editor printed in the Nov. 27, 2009, edition of The Star-News. In that letter, she expressed her opinion that it was unfortunate that the sensitivities of African-Americans were offended by the flying of Confederate flags. Freedom of speech, however, was too important, and if someone is offended by the flying of Confederate flags, well “they [don’t] even have to look up.” (Read the letter at

Ms. Beelsey got it right in that 2009 letter. The “sensitivities” of certain individuals should never trump the important constitutional rights guaranteed to all Americans. And, because freedom of religion is also an important constitutional right, it too should never be trumped by another person’s sensitivities, no matter how sensitive that person may feel about the matter.

The “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy is really not about Islam, the attack of 9/11 or terrorism. It is about us. Will we divide our nation with an “us/them” mentality, based on stereotyping, scapegoating and name calling; or will we seek ways to ensure our domestic tranquility and secure the blessing of liberty for all?

Matthews, a 1966 Andalusia High School graduate, currently resides in New York City.

About Byron B. Mathews

Graduate of AHS Class of 1966, Birmingham-Southern College, 1970, and the University of Alabama Law School, 1975. Veteran, U.S. Army 1970-1972. Have worked in the office of a U.S. Senator, a former President of the United States, a cabinet secretary (HHS), and as a law clerk to a United States Circuit Judge. Retired as a capital partner in McDermott, Will & Emery, one of the top 10 largest law firms in the United States.

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