Sestak frames NYC mosque dispute as rights question

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Seeking the middle ground on a polarizing issue, Rep. Joe Sestak said that as long as constitutional rights are respected, it's up to New Yorkers to make the decisions on a proposal to build an Islamic study center and mosque near the former site of the World Trade Center.

"I believe in the constitutional right of religious freedom and that the separation of church and state applies equally to everyone," Mr. Sestak, D-Delaware County, said yesterday. "This issue is a New York issue, and I'll let them resolve it, but it has to be resolved with respect for that constitutional right."

Mr. Sestak was to appear today with the most passionate public defender of the mosque proposal, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Mr. Bloomberg, an independent, was to travel to Philadelphia to endorse the Democrat's candidacy in the Senate race against former Rep. Pat Toomey.

Mr. Bloomberg has strongly rebutted critics of the center, saying that to ban it or force it to relocate would be a symbolic rejection of religious liberty. He said Monday that it would be "a sad day for America" if the rising criticism killed the proposal.

On Friday, President Barack Obama spoke strongly in favor of the proposition that Muslims have the same rights to religious freedom as members of other faiths. His remarks were seen as an endorsement of the mosque plan and were immediately seized upon by conservative opponents of the plan.

Over the weekend, however, Mr. Obama emphasized that his statement affirmed the principles of religious freedom and equality rather than the wisdom of the New York plan.

On Monday, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate majority leader who is in a tough re-election battle, was the most senior Democrat to come out against the siting of the mosque, an issue that has become a staple of talk news and conservative commentary. Even before Mr. Sestak spoke, the National Republican Senatorial Committee issued a statement demanding to know his position on the issue.

Mr. Toomey opposes the mosque proposal.

"It is provocative in the extreme to build a mosque in the shadow of ground zero," said Nachama Soloveichik, Mr. Toomey's communications director. "Islamic leaders should be encouraged to move the mosque elsewhere."

Mr. Bloomberg's endorsement was welcomed by the Sestak campaign as reinforcement for the image he seeks to project as a non-ideological, pragmatic problem-solver. But the appearance, coinciding with the height of the mosque controversy, comes amid a campaign in which the retired admiral has been forced to counter conservative criticism over his 2007 appearance at a dinner hosted by the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Mr. Sestak has defended himself as steadfast friend of Israel and noted that his speech at CAIR called on Muslims to condemn acts of terror against Israel.


Politics editor James O'Toole: jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562.


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