Harry Reid, U.S. Senate Majority Leader, recently came out against the planned mosque near Ground Zero. According to news reports, his spokesman said:
"The First Amendment protects freedom of religion. Senator Reid respects that but thinks that the mosque should be built someplace else."
This position, shared by many, including Sharron Angle, Reid’s opponent in the current U.S. senate race, conflates terrorism and Islam and ignores the meaning of the First Amendment. The First Amendment prohibits government officials from telling people how they express themselves or telling religious groups how to practice. A place of worship must be properly zoned, but government has no right to dictate what a religious entity does there – nor can it single out one religion's adherents for discriminatory treatment because their mere presence may be offensive to some. A church and temple are located closer to the Ground Zero site --- the First Amendment prohibits the kind of religious discrimination Angle and Reid have endorsed.
This is not an issue that is limited to the current controversy over Ground Zero. A statement of support for free speech should not be followed by “but.” While the First Amendment is not a blanket right, its scope must be wide if it is to be a meaningful protection against government censorship. Often, just like Senator Reid in this instance, people say “I support free speech but…” and then go on to point to a type of or topic of speech that they feel comfortable banning. The problem is, we all have our own hot button topics. If we carved out exceptions for the many types of expression people find offensive, there would be nothing left that we could say.
In contrast to Angle and Reid, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg understands that the tragedy of 9/11 cannot justify carving out an exception to the First Amendment. In a recent speech he passionately defended the right of people to build the mosque near Ground Zero:
"On September 11, 2001, thousands of first responders heroically rushed to the scene and saved tens of thousands of lives. More than 400 of those first responders did not make it out alive. In rushing into those burning buildings, not one of them asked 'What God do you pray to?' 'What beliefs do you hold?'
The attack was an act of war — and our first responders defended not only our City but also our country and our Constitution. We do not honor their lives by denying the very Constitutional rights they died protecting. We honor their lives by defending those rights — and the freedoms that the terrorists attacked."
It is unfortunate that neither candidate for U.S. Senate from Nevada shares Mayor Bloomberg’s respect for free speech.