The Ground Zero mosque, a 13-story Islamic cultural center proposed for a site two blocks from the former World Trade Center, cleared its likely final hurdle when the New York City Landmarks and Preservation Commission voted 9-0 to deny protected landmark status to the building currently occupying the site.
The decision is believed to be the last legal impediment to the project going forward. The commission, whose 11 members are all appointed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, held its meeting yesterday morning in lower Manhattan, in the shadow of Ground Zero.
After the vote, spokeswoman Elisabeth De Bourbon tried to separate the commission’s action from the national controversy swirling around the mosque. “The purpose of the vote is to decide whether the building has a special character or special historical or aesthetic interest or value as part of the development, heritage or cultural characteristics of New York City, New York State or the nation,” she said.
Commission member Christopher Moore was willing to acknowledge the controversy surrounding the proposal, saying that the building on Park Place, “is a part of Ground Zero.” But Moore said that connection was not enough to warrant landmark status. “One cannot designate hundreds of buildings on that criteria alone. We do not landmark the sky,” he said.
Mayor Bloomberg applauded the commission’s decision, saying in a speech on Governor’s Island soon after the vote that the issue touched on the foundations of American democracy.
“This nation was founded on the principle that the government must never choose between religions or favor one over another. The World Trade Center site will forever hold a special place in our city, in our hearts. But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans if we said no to a mosque in lower Manhattan,” Bloomberg said. “We would betray our values and play into our enemies’ hands if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else. In fact, to cave to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists, and we should not stand for that.”
Bloomberg said that developers should show “special sensitivity” given the proximity of the mosque to the site of the worst terrorist attacks on American soil, but added that in his view, the government has no authority to prevent the project from going forward. “The simple fact is, this building is private property, and the owners have a right to use the building as a house of worship, and the government has no right whatsoever to deny that right,” he said.
In an e-mail to Human Events, Debra Burlingame, co-founder of 9/11 Families for a Safe and Strong America and the sister of hijacked American Airlines flight 77 pilot Charles Burlingame, took umbrage at Bloomberg’s remarks, calling the mayor’s speech a staged photo-op. Burlingame said the issue, “has nothing at all to do with religious tolerance,” and vowed to keep fighting the proposal.
“Muslims came to America nine years ago, brutally murdered 3,000 men, women and children in the name of Allah, and yet the burden is on us, their families, their widows and children, to exhibit tolerance for Muslim insensitivity,” Burlingame wrote. “Shame on the politicians, whose moral vanity knows no boundaries. We will fight this.”
The controversy over the mosque has become a central issue in the New York governor’s race, with Republican Rick Lazio seeking to force his Democratic opponent, Atty. Gen. Andrew Cuomo, to comment on the issue. Cuomo has remained silent on the mosque since taking questions from reporters about it nearly a month ago. Referring to a demand from Lazio to investigate the funding sources for the mosque’s backers, a registered charity known as the Cordoba Initiative, Cuomo seemed to accuse opponents of the project of religious bigotry.
“If there is a criminal case, then there is a criminal case. But if this is, ‘I don’t like this religion, and I don’t like this religion on this block,’ or ‘I don’t like this religion in this city,’ then I agree with Mayor Bloomberg. Then I agree with the community board that approved the mosque,” Cuomo said.
The Cuomo campaign issued no official statement on the Landmark Commission’s ruling.
Lazio has kept the pressure on Cuomo, challenging him to a public debate on the mosque and questioning Cuomo’s political courage. Lazio was in attendance for the commission’s vote, and again called for an investigation into the financial backing for the mosque. “Let’s have transparency. If [the sources of funding for the project] are foreign governments, we ought to know about it. If they’re radical organizations, we ought to know about it,” Lazio said. “This is not about religion. It’s about this particular mosque.”
After the vote, Lazio issued a statement pledging to continue highlighting the issue and hitting Cuomo for his silence.
“Today is just one more step in the ongoing public dialogue about the questionable backers of the Cordoba Mosque at Ground Zero,” Lazio said. “Andrew Cuomo has remained silent on the matter of investigating the finances of this project, as he was silent on whether to have the trial for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Lower Manhattan. In the absence of leadership from Andrew Cuomo I will continue to ask the questions about this project that need to be answered to insure the public safety of New Yorkers.”
The Ground Zero mosque controversy has swelled into a national debate with the likes of Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich on the right, and Sen. Joe Lieberman on the left calling for a halt to the project. In New York, Lazio’s campaign has gained new traction with its daily questioning of Andrew Cuomo’s refusal to take a public position on the mosque among other issues in the race.
A recent Quinnipiac University poll found that 52% of New Yorkers oppose building the mosque near Ground Zero with just 31% in favor. Those numbers mirror the results of a recent Rasmussen Reports survey, which found that 54% of Americans oppose building the mosque while just 20% support it. Fifty-one percent of respondents in the Rasmussen survey said they were following the story at least “somewhat closely” with 22% saying they are following it “very closely.”
It remains unclear whether the Landmarks Commission’s action will be the final say on the project. But with so many voters in New York and nationally paying attention to the issue, it is a sure bet that the controversy will continue to dog Andrew Cuomo, and perhaps national Democrats through the November elections.