New York Lawyer | August 20, 2010; By Daniel Wise | New York Law Journal
The New York City Bar issued a strongly worded statement Wednesday defending the right of Muslims to build an Islamic center and mosque, two blocks from ground zero, saying „our nation is the stronger, both internally and in its standing in the world, for preserving religious freedom.“
The statement issued by City Bar President Samuel W. Seymour placed the association in the midst of a political debate stirred by President Barack Obama’s defense last week of Muslims‘ right to build the mosque as reflecting religious freedoms that are „essential to who we are.“
Stewart D. Aaron, president-elect of the New York County Lawyers‘ Association, which is located across the street from ground zero, said in an interview yesterday that NYCLA was founded on a commitment to „inclusion“ and „welcomes the mosque to the neighborhood“ as an addition that would make „the area around ground zero more vibrant.“
With mid-term elections less than three months away, Republicans around the country who oppose the plan have sought to capitalize on Mr. Obama’s remarks as they seek to regain control of both houses of Congress.
Mr. Obama quickly backtracked last week, saying that he was not commenting on the „wisdom“ of the project.
Some Democrats who find themselves in tight re-election races, such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, have opposed placing a mosque so close to the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks by Islamic extremists.
And Governor David A. Paterson has distanced himself from the president’s position by seeking to promote negotiations that would lead to finding an alternative site for an Islamic center.
However, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has strongly defended the decision to locate the center on the periphery of the World Trade Center site. The project, an 11-story building estimated to cost $100 million, is said to be modeled on a YMCA, and will include a pool, gym, 500-seat auditorium as well as a 9/11 memorial in addition to the mosque.
On Aug. 3, the day the project cleared a hurdle when the city Landmarks Preservation Commission voted that the existing building did not qualify for landmark status, Mr. Bloomberg said of the opposition, „to cave to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists—and we should not stand for that.“
Mr. Seymour’s statement supported Mr. Bloomberg’s decision not to interfere with the site of the proposed center.
„Freedom of religion is one of the cornerstones of our constitution and our democratic traditions; indeed it is what brought many of the nation’s early settlers to our shores, and millions more since,“ the statement continued.
51 Park Place is the site of the proposed Islamic center.
Mr. Seymour said in an interview he had decided to issue a „narrow constitutional statement“ rather than addressing „the entire spectrum of political and emotional issues at play.“
Mr. Seymour said he relied on a wealth of reports the city bar has issued in support of preserving constitutional rights which have come under siege since 9/11.
Michael A. Cardozo, the city’s corporation counsel, said in a statement yesterday, „As corporation counsel, and as a former City Bar Association president, I commend the association’s statement with respect to the downtown mosque. Both the Bar Association and the mayor have expressed their strong support of freedom of religion, one of our nation’s most precious and steadfast pillars. By combining this freedom with tolerance, we show the world that America is a country that won’t be bowed by terrorists.“
The terror attacks directly affected the Corporation Counsel’s office, which is located just north of ground zero. Approximately 1,000 staff were forced to evacuate and relocate to about 40 locations for nearly seven months.
William J. Honan, the executive partner of Holland & Knight, which in 2001 had its office a block from the World Trade Center, said many of the firm’s staff lived through „that horribly traumatic day, but that was the work of terrorists and that is not what we are talking about here.“
Mr. Honan said he was expressing a personal view, not that of the firm. One of Holland & Knight’s partners, Glen J. Winuk, a volunteer fireman, died on 9/11 after rushing to the towers to help with the rescue effort. Holland & Knight has since moved to West 52nd Street.
Evan A. Davis, who was city bar president in 2001, said he is proud the association has fought to prevent curtailment „of basic constitutional principles because something terrible happened.“ Mr. Davis, a partner at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, which is located a block from ground zero, said preserving the right to religious freedom is a part of that battle, and he „welcomes“ the mosque to the neighborhood.
But Dennis Quirk, the president of the New York State Court Officers Association, said „the mosque should not be located close to [ground zero]“ because the families of some of the 2,700 people killed in the attack „feel very strongly“ that it does not belong there.
If the sponsors of the mosque would agree to move the site, he added, „they would have their religious freedom but not upset the [victims‘] families.“
Many of the union’s members work in courthouses located near ground zero. Three court officers died in the rescue effort, and more than 45 were injured.
Stephen P. Younger, the president of the New York State Bar Association, referred a request for an interview to a spokesman, Nick Parrella, who said the group has not taken a position on the proposed Islamic center.