Ground Zero Mosque and Limited Government

It appears that for a principled defense of property rights, the exercise of religion in America, and limited government we have to turn to ... liberal blogger Kevin Drum

We already know that a large majority of Americans are opposed to building it, but here are the results of an Economist poll on a slightly different question:

Whether or not you think the Islamic cultural centre and mosque should be built near the World Trade Center site, do you think that Muslims have a constitutional right to build a mosque there?

Technically, I think the wording of this question should have been turned around: not whether Muslims have the right to build a mosque on Park Place, but whether the government has the constitutional right to stop them from building a mosque on Park Place.

Still, I think everyone probably understands what this means, and it's just depressing as hell. It's one thing to oppose the mosque just because you don't like the idea, but to deny that Muslims even have a constitutional right to build it? That should be a no-brainer. Of course they do.

Seriously, this is from a man who probably does not think you have the Constitutional right to choose your own doctor. Why are Republicans ceding the high ground on this to Democrats? Well, it turns out that is the theme of my new column this week in Forbes.

...prospective mosque-banners would argue that I simply don't understand how utterly, deeply offensive the proposed location of this mosque is to them. But that is not the case. I am offended as well by what might be a laudatory memorial to a terrorist incident. But the question for me is, do we have a right not to be offended?

The irony is that for the last decade or so, conservatives have fought the political correctness movement over exactly this issue. Conservative commentators, rightly I think, were up in arms over the "hate speech" trial of Mark Steyn in Canada, and more recently the cancellation of Ann Coulter's Canadian speaking tour. In both cases Canadian government and university officials argued that Steyn's and Coulter's criticisms of radical Islam were too divisive, too defamatory to Muslims, and in general too offensive to be allowed public voice....

This is what truly floors me about the Ground Zero controversy: Republicans all over the country are standing up and begging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Barack Obama to void the property rights of a private entity, shut down the construction of a church, and do so to protect some mythical right not to be offended, a right that, until recently, conservatives argued did not exist. Do Republicans really want to encourage the federal government to tear up property rights and First Amendment protections, all in the name of hurt feelings? If conservatives set this precedent today, they are almost certainly not going to like how it is used tomorrow.

Postscript: I notice something in this poll that I have seen several times lately.  Traditionally, poll results for independents always fell somewhere between Republicans and Democrats.  In this poll, as in several others I have seen, Independent responses actually fell outside of these bounds.  Increasingly independents are shedding the "moderate" label and actually pacing the two political parties.  I find this encouraging, though it is probably too much to hope for that this is the leading indicator of some type of radical ideological restructuring of the Coke and Pepsi parties.


  1. NJConservative:

    I'm not sure that the constitution says anything about the right to build a house of worship anywhere you feel like it. No one is suggesting that we restrict the muslims' right to worship. The fight is over the propriety of the mosque's location, not its existence.

    Zoning boards and other arms of government have held sway over these decisions for a very long time. In fact, the Orthodox church in lower Manhattan, which was destroyed on 9/11, has yet to be rebuilt because of government resistance.

  2. Douglas Foss:

    There is a stunning lack of appreciation for "means" and an unbelievable emphasis on "ends" in our political lives. Drum and those calling for someone to prevent construction of the mosque are identical. Neither has the slightest principle and could care less how a desired policy occurs so long as their own idea of what's best advances to become policy. As a result, both want to impart incredibly officious and intermeddling powers to the Leviathan, both with the horribly mistaken view that if we only had the right people in charge, there would be no problem. The Constitution supplies the means to adopt policy and had substantial protections against the so-called tyranny of the majority - limited powers, balance of powers, and Bill of Rights - and each required a supermajority (amendments to the Constitution being exceptionally difficult to accomplish) to alter the existing structural protections. Many different factions have repeatedly sought to provide the government with greater powers, and, through stretching of the Commerce Clause and retrenchment of various rights (taking of property and warrantless searches come to mind immediately), we have encouraged the Supreme Court to reduce those structural protections so that the "right" people have the power to make decisions for everyone. This is why the Democratic and Republican parties are equally unreliable today.

  3. forest:

    They have the right to build the mosque.

    I deal with zoning boards all the time, and they often make dodgy decisions trampling private property rights just because the project in question is somewhat unpopular. It only takes 4-5 angry neighbors. For example, a 500k project I worked on was rejected because the ZHB decided the applicant "didn't need it". So apparently, the board felt that private companies go around spending half million dollars on unnecessary projects, and that they understood the business better than the company that has been involved in it for 75 years. If it's not a board arrogating what in "unnecessary" to private concerns, they can always come up with an excuse like "too much new traffic" or "out of character with the area", or "inconsistent with the master plan". I'm not making this up. They will find an excuse.

    Zoning boards trump up excuses to turn down unpopular application all the time, and I don't approve of it. Same goes for other historic boards and other similar private property tramplers.

    Everybody should keep and eye on what their municipality is doing to their property rights. If you wait until you want to do something with your own property, it'll be too late.

    Anyway, they have the right to build the mosque. I think its a bad idea, but they have the right.

    And the 1st Amendment allows the rest of us to say what we think of the mosque and the people behind it. Threats of being "investigated" aren't going to work.

  4. Jehu:

    A lot of conservatives have come to feel as I do. The constitution never protected us when we needed it against the majority and elite opinion. Why should it protect 'them'? The rules of engagement are thoroughly breached and should no longer protect our enemies either.

  5. LoneSnark:

    NJConservative is right. While I believe they and everyone should have the right to build and operate whatever establishment desired on their own property, that has not been the case for a hundred years. Zoning boards all over the country block church construction, church practices, all sorts of crap. As such, it would be a lie to suggest the muslims in this instance have the right to open a church. No one in America has that right, why should they? The only right we have enshrined in law is the right to ask permission from elected officials. And those elected officials have the right to refuse because a church wouldn't collect enough sales taxes.

  6. LoneSnark:

    To clarify my point, at least some of the people that answered "No" to this poll have probably had their sensible home expansion denied by a zoning board, proving beyond a reasonable doubt that no one here has a constitutional right to decide land use. I myself would have answered No to this question, as an unenforced constitutional right is no right at all.

  7. Dan:

    The first amendment is one of those simple appearing statements that is filled with endless complexity. The operative terms are "establishment of religion" and "prohibiting the free expression thereof." The Park Place property already contains a functioning mosque. No one has suggested it be closed. The objection is to a high rise community center which contains, among other features, a mosque. Suppose I want to build a strip club in my town, but the property I've purchased is across the street from a school, and my town has a zoning prohibtion for strip clubs within half a mile of a school. "But," I argue, "within my club I plan to construct a chapel for customers and employees who wish to hold religious services. If you deny my permit, you are in violation of the First Amendment."
    A ridiculous example, of course. The primary purpose of the club is not religion. The cultural center on Park Place's primary purpose is...what? There already is a mosque. Why tear down the structure and build a skyscraper unless there is an unstated purpose which is not protected by the first amendment? The propaganda value to the promoters of jihad is incalculable if the propsed center is built and videotapes of the victory over the infidels are broadcast throughout the world. "Look what we have done," they will boast. "Brought down the World Trade Center and created a center for furthering our goals of jihad."

  8. J. Wilson:

    New York City has the right to stop the Mosque from being built, in part because the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution says that the Federal government can't interfere:

    "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

    The First Amendment only stipulates that CONGRESS can't interfere with religion one way or another. It doesn't say that states and cities cannot:

    "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."

    And what does the Constitution of New York have say?

    "The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever be allowed in this state to all humankind; and no person shall be rendered incompetent to be a witness on account of his or her opinions on matters of religious belief; but the liberty of conscience hereby secured shall not be so construed as to excuse acts of licentiousness, or justify practices inconsistent with the peace or safety of this state.

  9. MJ:

    A Pew poll recently indicated that one in five Americans also believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim. Coincidence?

  10. Che is dead:

    What's "depressing as hell" is that leftists only discover their respect and commitment to the Constitution when arguing in favor of child pornography or mosques at ground zero. When do we get the results from the Economist poll on the Second Amendment? Or, the poll asking about the constitutionality of rent control? No one has the right to do "anything they want" with their property, just ask the farmers who have had thousands of acres of land virtually confiscated in order to protect the sanctity of some field mouse. Conservatives are not encouraging the federal government to "tear up property rights and First Amendment protections". Get a life.

  11. Fred:

    So I could exercise my property rights and open up an Art gallery across the street form that mosque, an Art Gallery specializing in Mohamed Cartoons.

    No insensitivity there, just good business and Freedom of Expression.

    Mohamed cartoons for everyone. Because it is my right to do so.

    Obama would have "no regrets" about supporting my new business, right ?

  12. Jason:

    I think i'd have to agree with a number of the comments here. It is clear that property rights in many instances are basically a joke, so there is no right to free use of private property if the government decides to not allow it. That experience by many would justify them saying "no there is no such right".

    Although I think Greg Gutfeld had the right take on the issue. He said, "yes you have the right, but lets be honest, you are deliberately being jerks" and I think his suggestion to build an alcohol free, muslim friendly gay nightclub next door to the mosque is not a bad idea. There have also been suggestions to set up other deliberately provocative businesses nearby (I loved the suggestion of an art gallery of mo cartoons).


  13. chanteurdecharme:

    Your First Amendment is something the world needs, as was much apparent during the "Mohammed cartoons" issue.
    And by the way, should cartoon child pornography be banned, too? As long as no child is hurt, what's the problem? Snuff movies are obviously a no-no, but what about horror flicks? Should Carpenter and Romero be banned? One of the most ludicrous moves of the European Commissary in charge of health was to propose some kind of a ban on movies where people actually SMOKED! What a terrible thing! Smoking! Well, they can disembowel other people, hammer in their teeth and kill them in any inventive fashion, I suppose, but smoke...
    I do have grave reservations however about building mosques: the infernal din of the muezzin atop his minaret (a CD fed through a loudspeaker in fact). Having spent a few years in Algiers just opposite a mosque, I can testify that it is rather nerve-racking at first (you get used to it more or less rapidly, I grudgingly agree).
    And now in Brussels, Belgium, I have to put up with the devilish (or godly, as you prefer) sound of the church bells waking me up every Sunday at the crack of dawn! (well, 10 a.m. actually, but I'm a late sleeper). Let's ban all churches!

  14. DKH:

    Honestly, I'm very uneducated on this topic because I really don't care much whether a mosque is built there or not. However, for the purposes of the poll question, I would probably identify myself as Republican and answer no. I don't think the Constitution gives me the right to construct a building wherever I please, just because it has a religious purpose.

    It might be nice to point to the response of "independents" and say, "wow, what freedom-loving people!"; however, I have no real faith that they aren't saying "yes" because it's the "tolerant" thing as opposed to actual constitutional principle.

  15. Dr. T:

    I have known for many years that newspapers and wire services performed piss-poor polls, but this Economist poll is the worst I've seen. It is not a random survey of adult Americans. The 1,000 respondents (far too few for statistical reliability, especially when that total is partitioned into multiple categories) were from an "opt-in Internet panel" from a group known as YouGov’s PollingPoint panel. [see below] Characteristics of the population groups were "imputed" based on 2008 surveys made by other organizations. [see below] The poll had 55 questions and rejected 18. (The criteria for acceptance were not stated.) The claimed margin of error for each item is 3.4%, but that's only the statistical error based on sampling size--it says nothing about how poorly the respondents correlate with the full adult population of the USA. The respondents were 35% Democrats, 25% Republicans, and 31% Independents. The poll report doesn't tell us about the remaining 9%. A Gallup poll conducted from Jan-Mar 2010 showed that 46% of Americans identified with or "leaned" Democratic while 45% identified with or "leaned" Republican. That doesn't gibe with this poll where Democrats have 40% more respondents than Republicans. I give this poll a reliability score of 1 out of 10.

    Direct quote from the poll report:
    "Respondents were selected from YouGov’s PollingPoint panel using sample matching. A random sample (stratified by age, gender, race, education, and region) was selected from the 2005–2007 American Community Study. Voter registration, turnout, religion, news interest, minor party identification, and non-placement on an ideology scale, were imputed from the 2008 Current Population Survey Registration and Voting Supplement and the Pew Religion in American Life Survey. Matching respondents were selected from the PollingPoint panel, an opt-in Internet panel."

  16. John Moore:

    While I know you appear to love to bash Republicans, this is pretty weak stuff. The wording is such that many people could have answered no for a variety of valid reasons.

    No, they don't have a constitutional right to build wherever they want - at least according to court rulings which uphold zoning laws (which many of us agree are abused). So if by a constitutional right people mean a right as decided by SCOTUS, the correct answer is clearly and resoundingly NO.

    Furthermore, you have to expect that quite a few poll respondents answered no because they are strongly against the construction of the Mosque and the poll is the only way to get their opinion felt.

    Please try not to read the worst into the right every time you get the chance.

  17. tehag:

    How exactly do Moslems have a right to build the GZM? Has no one heard of zoning laws? No one has a Constitutional right to build anything.

  18. Hunt Johnsen:

    What no one wants to discuss is that we are actually at war with Islam, or at least they are at war with us, and building mosques anywhere in the allowing the enemy to build fortifications and armories within our lines.

  19. EvilRedScandi:

    Oh yeah, we libertarians all forgot about the numerous sections of the Constitution relating to zoning. How silly of us. Must be in the "King James Version" we're always hearing about.

    The 10th amendment argument is the best one I've seen against it, and even that makes me roll my eyes.

    Warren pretty much captures my thoughts exactly in the Forbes article: Allowing assholes to self-identify is always useful. The mosque potentially serves several useful purposes:

    1) Pretty much anybody entering the place is, as mentioned, self-identifying themselves as at best an asshole.

    2) It reminds people exactly what a bald-faced lie the whole "Religion of Peace" thing is, and more or less beheads the notion that most Muslims are nice people who don't want to offend us.

    3) The emotional impact of 9/11 has been fading for a good percentage of the population. This just stokes the fires right back up.

    Is it a hideously evil project? Undoubtedly. But Islam has much more to lose than to gain by building this thing.

  20. Pat:

    That poll is terrible. The question of whether or not the Constitution provides a right to worship is very different than whether or not it provides a right to build a place of worship in any particular location. The insinuation seems to be that believing that the answer is no to the latter means you also believe the answer is no to the former.

    I have not heard many people saying they have no right to build their mosque there. (I say "many" although I actually haven't heard anyone make that claim, though I'm sure some do.) What I'm hearing and reading is that people don't like the symbolism and would ask only that they build a mosque and cultural center (in which they can worship freely and swim and build understanding) elsewhere. After all, if they are sincere about building understanding and increasing tolerance, you'd think that they'd be understanding and tolerant of that request--a position, by the way, that would go a long way toward creating more understanding and tolerance, as opposed to the insistence that the desires of a majority must be ignored so that they can do what they want.

  21. me:

    Interesting factoid about the design history of the former WTC - it was conceived as an allusion to Mecca:

  22. Mark:

    Who ever said anyone has a constitutional right to build anything?

    Before mouthing off that the Muslim group has a constitutional right to build there, show me in the constitution where people have the constitutional right to build things.

    On a side note:
    I think even though the planning board approved the project it is still rather fishy. Usually part of the planning process is verifying that the project can be built, so you don't end up with a hole in the ground. How did this project get approved, with no obvious source of financial backing and no plan? Usually cities like to see how the project will look, will ask for environmental, and traffic impact plans, basic designs, Facade drawings, info on materials used on the outside - to make sure the building blends, ask for cost offsets for city land upgrades required for the project before approval, etc, etc. My hometown was actually able to take land back when builders ran into financial difficulties.

    If this were an insurance company wanting to build their new headquarters, with just 18 grand, and no plans, and no studies ... they would be denied in a heartbeat.

    The real question therefore is, why was this group shown such favortism?

  23. Bearster:

    Hunt Johnsen has the right of it. When a group swears to violently bring about the end of the USA--especially when it takes action towards this goal--then the right of property is not in question. Nor is the right of exercise of religion. Islam ceases to be a "religion" in any usable sense of the word when it embarked on its jihad against the West.

    In the UK, a few days ago, it was a major news item that the government "had to warn" (this is the wording used by the BBC) Libya not to have a celebration of the anniversary of the release of the mass murderer who brought down a passenger airline over Lockerbie.

    Jihad is the official policy of a number of governments, which incidentally all have in common "the religion of peace"--Islam.

    Just because the West does not want to recognize that these countries are waging war against us by terrorist proxy, just because we want to think Islam is a peaceful religion and jihad means "inner struggle", does not mean that it's true, or that jihad can't hurt us.

    What do you suppose the Brits and the French were thinking about the Nazis in the early 1930's? I bet they were thinking the same thing that most Americans (and Europeans) are thinking about the Muslims today. The Germans only wanted to be "reunited" with their brothers across the border...

  24. Mallard:

    Why the hell are you guys caring so much about the sanctity of zoning laws?

    Listen, if you believe it's ok to abuse their property rights because other people's property rights have been abused already, then you don't really believe in property rights at all.

  25. DensityDuck:

    "It appears that for a principled defense of property rights, the exercise of religion in America, and limited government we have to turn to … liberal blogger Kevin Drum"

    That *is* the most ironic thing about this whole business--that we've got DEMOCRATS passionately defending free speech, free exercise of religion, and strong property rights!

  26. Colin:

    Keith Olbermann makes an excellent, non-liberal defense of the 'Muslim Cultural Center' as well: