Obama: Ground Zero Mosque within Muslims' Rights

Updated at 10:12 p.m. ET

In a defense of religious freedom before a group of Muslims dining at the White House Friday, President Obama supported the mosque and community center planned to be built near ground zero in New York City.

(Watch clip at left)

"As a citizen and as president, I believe that Muslims have the right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country," Mr. Obama said. "That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances."

Mr. Obama addressed the group celebrating the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. The president hosted the daily meal that breaks the month-long fast, called an iftar dinner.

The remarks represent Mr. Obama's first comments on the center.

"This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable," Mr. Obama said. "The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are. The writ of our founders must endure."

The president also referred to the 9/11 attacks as "a deeply traumatic event for our country" and called the site where the World Trade Center towers once stood "hallowed ground."

CBS Radio News Correspondent Mark Knoller reports that the president's response isn't much of a surprise.

"It's the president taking a firm stand for the principle of religious freedom," said Knoller. "It's clear he's willing to bear the political consequences -- if any -- of his assertion that Muslims have the right to build their mosque, even near to ground zero. His background is constitutional law, and his remarks make it evident he sees no reason to deny the Muslims the rights and protections of freedom of religion."

The center has riled some friends and family members of victims who died during the 9/11 attacks and some emergency workers who responded to the attacks on the World Trade Center. However, their opposition has not been uniform.

The issue has also attracted the attention of many political figures. Conservative leaders, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, oppose the center. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg supports it.

According to a pool report for the press, the president "spoke for 11 minutes before a crowd of roughly 120 people seated at a dozen tables in the State Dining Room, including men in suits, women with heads covered and women with heads uncovered, at least one man in African garb and at least one man in a Navy uniform."

Mr. Obama noted at the beginning of his remarks that Rep. André Carson, D-Ind. and one of two Muslim American members of Congress, was among the guests.

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  • Alex Sundby

    Alex Sundby is an associate news editor for CBSNews.com

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