Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Constitution is at stake in Newton County mosque debate

In recent years we’ve been treated to a lot of high-handed rhetoric about the sanctity of the Constitution and of the liberties enumerated in the Bill of Rights. Unfortunately, we’ve also witnessed just how fragile and paper-thin public support for the Constitution can be under duress, particularly in an election season.

The controversy over a proposed mosque in Newton County offers another sobering example. Since grade school, we’ve all been taught the stories how the Pilgrims and Puritans and Quakers and later the Baptists and Methodists fled to America in search of the freedom to worship the God of their choice, in the fashion that they wished. We’ve been taught to venerate the freedom of conscience protected under the First Amendment, which makes it clear that the awesome powers of government — at the federal, state or even local level — cannot be used to promote or discriminate against a particular religious sect.

Freedom of religion is part of the bedrock of our heritage. And if you were to poll those Newton County citizens who showed up at a public meeting this week to protest the building of a mosque and cemetery in their community, I’d bet that almost to a person they would express strong rhetorical support for the Constitution and religious liberty.

But …

But driven by fear, anger, bigotry and inflammatory, irresponsible rhetoric from political leaders who ought to know better, too many have been led to believe that there’s an unwritten, unseen but powerful “but” hidden in the First Amendment. Here in America, we all have the right to pray and worship as we wish, but … not those people. Here in America we’re all equal under the eyes of the law, but … not those people.

They dress funny. They talk funny. They pray funny. And my fears and bias give me the right to trump whatever rights they think they might have, even to the point of denying them a place in which to bury their dead. The public commentary, gleaned from Facebook and press interviews, was pretty stark:

“They need to open butcher shops all around the property where they want to build the mosque!! Sell nothing but pork!! Pig heads everywhere!!!

“As a United States citizen, we don’t need people that don’t want to go by our laws. What are they actually going to be doing there at the mosque?” (Those laws include the First Amendment and laws guaranteeing the right to build houses of worship without religious-based interference.)

“How do we know there won’t be an ISIS training camp? There’s many in this country. I’m totally against everything they represent because I believe in God and the holy Bible.” (That same Bible tells us that “You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native.”)

“I don’t want these people and these teachings in our community. Were we not watching our TV on Sept. 11, 2001? Have we lost our mind? Have we lost our common sense here?” (No, what we’ve lost is courage. What we’ve lost is commitment to values that we celebrate when written on parchment but refuse to honor in our lives.)

In the end, I hope, the mosque will be built. Those opposing it have no legal grounds on which to fight it, no moral grounds upon which to oppose it. This controversy is part of the process, part of the means by which we remind each other that liberty for us requires that we fight for the liberty of them as well.

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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.