Steve Chapman

Ten years ago, Republicans in Congress passed a major law to protect the right of Muslims to establish mosques even where such a building might be unwelcome. Yes, they did. They just may not have thought of it quite that way at the time.

The law, called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), was aimed at a common problem often ignored by the courts: local government bodies using zoning authority to prevent religious institutions from moving in or expanding their operations.

It had the support of such groups as the Christian Legal Society and the Family Research Council. Rep. Charles Canady, R-Fla., said it was aimed at "the well-documented and abusive treatment suffered by religious individuals and organizations in the land use context." Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, pushed it because, he said, "At the core of religious freedom is the ability for assemblies to gather and worship together."

Today, of course, that statute is a problem for anyone hoping that the city, state or federal government would take action to block an Islamic community center in lower Manhattan, commonly referred to as the Ground Zero mosque. Many of those opponents are happy to disregard both the law and the Constitution in their effort.

Not all critics of the plan endorse government intervention. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani agreed the Cordoba Initiative has the right to build at that site if it chooses, while insisting that it should reconsider out of "sensitivity" -- a trait rarely associated with him.

But other opponents are not so respectful of religious rights. Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich said that permitting the construction of the center would show "weakness and submission" to our enemies.

Carl Paladino, who is running for governor of New York in the GOP primary, has vowed to seize the land. Pamela Geller, head of Stop Islamization of America, urged the city to give landmark status to the existing building to kill the proposal.

Among the citizens who turned out to protest the building at the Landmarks Preservation Commission meeting, there was no visible deference to the religious liberty of Muslims. When the commission voted to let the plan proceed, there were shouts of "Shame on you!" and "Disgrace!"

But had the city used its landmarking power to kill the project, it would have faced a court challenge. And thanks to the 2000 law, it would probably lose.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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