We have a small group Bible study every Thursday in our home in a fine little sub-division in suburban Atlanta. Our group continues to grow in numbers and depth; we’re very pleased. We are so pleased that we’ve decided to make a big change: we going to build a steeple on the house and put stained glass in the windows and a parking lot out back. In other words, we’ve decided to build a church in our neighborhood. We live in America, in the Bible belt no less, so the first Amendment protects our right to religious expression. Shouldn’t be a problem.
What wrong with my argument in this fictitious scenario? (Well, the thriving small group is true.) The case law that has developed over the centuries protects religious expression, but it has created limitations that allow the religious and non-religious alike to live in peace and in attractive and functional communities. I can’t build a church in my neighborhood because of zoning laws (and other community codes). But I can buy some land about a half-mile from my house and build one, in an area that is zoned commercial.
A church group cannot sing its praises at high decibels late at night near residences. A large church couldn’t be built in an area that could not sustain high-density parking. We could list exceptions to religious expression, and specifically church building, all day. You can build the church of your choice in a community, but not necessarily exactly where you want it.
The Supreme Court famously limited First Amendment speech rights that would put others in unnecessary peril. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote for the majority in 1919:
The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic. […] The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.
I don’t know if disapproval of the mosque would be legal. But I am convinced that while this Islamic congregation may have the right to build, it is not right for them to build so near the sad scar on our national consciousness that is Ground Zero.
This seems amazingly simple to me. There may be a great distinction between the tenets of the faith that guided the terrorists and the faith that guides the daily lives of these Manhattan adherents. I don’t know their hearts. But there is no doubt that the terrorist acts of 9/11 were committed in the name of Islam, and it is inappropriate, un-neighborly, and unnecessarily provocative—and probably dangerous—to build a Islamic house of worship so close to what will always be a memorial and shrine to the tragedy and those who were lost.
As Americans, we have a good history of living side by side with people of different races, ethnicities, faiths, and social class. But we’ve maintained that peace not by trying to test the raw edges of those relationships, but by avoiding unnecessary stress points.