RLUIPA, religious freedom and the New York Islamic center

It’s pretty interesting how some of the Jewish groups that have been so hot over the years to prevent local governments from impinging on the right of Jews to build synagogues without government interference are now silent in the face of the effort to block the “ground zero” mosque in lower Manhattan.

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), passed in 2000, was a top priority for Jewish groups ranging from the Orthodox Union to the Reform movement because of concerns that some communities were limiting the right of Jews to build synagogues, in some cases using zoning ordinances as cover for old-fashioned bigotry.

The law states that government entities cannot use zoning and land use restrictions to limit the building of religious institutions without a “compelling state interest.”

The idea behind RLUIPA was always that religious minorities need to be protected – not just from capricious local zoning officials but from public opinion. In some communities, building new synagogues would never happen if you put it to a popular vote – but Jewish groups have long argued that religious freedom should be sacrosanct.

So why do so many Jews who support the right of Jews to build a shul anywhere they want, without government restrictions and without having to worry about public opinion, oppose the Islamic center? Why should it matter that majorities in some polls oppose the Manhattan Islamic cultural center? How is it “compelling state interest” to block the center?

And what about Christian RLUIPA supporters?

The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), a conservative Christian legal advocacy group, touts itself as a key supporter of RLUIPA because of discrimination by local zoning boards against churches (increasingly, many communities complain about gigantic “mega-churches” that can flood a community with thousands of cars).

Because of such discrimination, the ACLJ says, “our nation’s houses of faith have their freedom to worship where and how they choose violated by ignorant or hostile zoning authorities.”

But the ACLJ is also one of the most vehement opponents of the New York Islamic center,and claims to be playing a major role in legal challenges to it.

Hmmm. So religious freedom, and the right to build religious institutions wherever worshipers want, is fine for Christians, but not Moslems.

Yes, I know: it was Moslems who perpetrated September 11. I guess the battle to block the Islamic center makes sense if you subscribe to the view that Islam itself is an inherently violent religion that was responsible for that tragedy, and that we’re locked into a planetary religious war that can end only when either Islam or Judeo-Christian civilization is vanquished.

But it seems to me Jews who want the Islamic cultural center project blocked are playing with fire. Bias against religious minorities rarely stops at today’s top target. And last I looked, Jews were still a mighty small religious minority.

And what about RLUIPA? Are we to take it that the broad principles behind the law are no longer relevant, or relevant only to some minorities?

Meanwhile, JTA has done a great job putting the “ground zero” part of the Islamic center’s popular name in context. The news agency sent a video reporter out to walk the two fairly long blocks between the World Trade Center site and the site of the proposed religious center.

Looks pretty much like any other two Manhattan blocks to me. Take a look below.

Was it a good idea to try to put an Islamic center so close to Ground Zero? Probably not; its planners should have anticipated the reaction from a public still sensitive about the terrible events of September 11, and the response of politicians eager to use the issue as a political wedge.

But it also seems to me that efforts to block the "mosque" could jeopardize some principles the Jewish religious community holds dear.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.