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August 18, 2010
Church-State Watchdog Group Says Government Can’t Subsidize Religion Or Give It Preferential Treatment
New York Gov. David Paterson’s proposal to offer public property to relocate the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” raises serious constitutional issues and could spark litigation, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
“I understand that some people are not happy with the prospect of an Islamic center opening in Manhattan, but relocating it to public property raises significant legal issues,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United.
“Whether the governor is talking about a gift of public land or a sweetheart deal that gives one religious group a special right to purchase government property, it’s wrong.
“In America,” continued Lynn, “government does not subsidize religion or give religious groups preferential treatment.”
Controversy has flared recently over plans by a Muslim group to build an Islamic center two blocks from the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Paterson proposed resolving the matter by offering public land elsewhere for construction of the Islamic facility.
But Paterson’s proposal is legally flawed, AU says.
Lynn pointed out that the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that government may not subsidize religious facilities. Any attempt to use public resources to relocate the Islamic center would undoubtedly lead to a legal challenge.
In addition to the U.S. Constitution, Lynn noted that New York’s constitution contains strong language barring any diversion of public resources for religious purposes. Article XI, for example, bans public support of institutions “wholly or in part under the control or direction of any religious denomination….”
Lynn urged Paterson to drop the proposal. The solution, Lynn said, is to respect the Muslim group’s right to build its center on private property using private funds.
“Local authorities in Manhattan have cleared the way for construction of the Islamic center,” Lynn said. “It’s up to the Islamic group to decide whether they want to proceed. I’m sorry that this situation has become so politicized.”
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.