"As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country," Mr. Obama told an intently listening crowd gathered at the White House Friday evening to observe the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
"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," he said. "This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable."
On Saturday, Mr. Obama expounded on the issue, saying that Muslims have the right to build the mosque, but he didn't share whether he thinks it's a good idea to do so.
Speaking during a family visit to the Florida Panhandle, Mr. Obama said that he didn't comment on "the wisdom" of putting a mosque near the site of the Sept. 11 attacks but rather was commenting on "the right" to build a mosque there.
The White House had not previously taken a stand on the mosque, which would be part of a $100 million Islamic community center two blocks from where nearly 3,000 people perished when hijacked jetliners slammed into the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001. Press secretary Robert Gibbs had insisted it was a local matter.
It was already much more than that, sparking debate around the country as top Republicans including Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich announced their opposition. So did the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights group.
Mr. Obama elevated it to a presidential issue Friday without equivocation.
While insisting that the place where the twin towers once stood was indeed "hallowed ground," Mr. Obama said that the proper way to honor it was to apply American values.
Harkening back to earlier times when the building of synagogues or Catholic churches also met with opposition, Mr. Obama said: "Time and again, the American people have demonstrated that we can work through these issues, and stay true to our core values and emerge stronger for it. So it must be and will be today."
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent who has been a strong supporter of the mosque, welcomed Mr. Obama's words as a "clarion defense of the freedom of religion."
Watch President Obama's comments:
"Barack Obama has abandoned America at the place where America's heart was broken nine years ago, and where her true values were on display for all to see," said Debra Burlingame, a spokeswoman for some Sept. 11 victims' families and the sister of one of the pilots killed in the attacks.
Building the mosque at ground zero, she said, "is a deliberately provocative act that will precipitate more bloodshed in the name of Allah."
Sally Regenhard, whose firefighter son was killed at the World Trade Center, said the president had failed to understand the issue. "As an Obama supporter, I really feel that he's lost sight of the germane issue, which is not about freedom of religion," she said. "It's about a gross lack of sensitivity to the 9/11 families and to the people who were lost."
Added Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y.: "President Obama is wrong. It is insensitive and uncaring for the Muslim community to build a mosque in the shadow of ground zero."
Entering the highly charged election-year debate, Mr. Obama surely knew that his words would not only make headlines in the U.S. but be heard by Muslims worldwide. The president has made it a point to reach out to the global Muslim community, and the over 100 guests at Friday's dinner in the State Dining Room included ambassadors and officials from numerous nations where Islam is observed, including Saudi Arabia and Indonesia.
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."
While his pronouncement concerning the mosque might find favor in the Muslim world, Mr. Obama's stance runs counter to the opinions of the majority of Americans, according to polls.
"It's interesting. He really could have stayed away from it," Politico reporter Jonathan Allen told CBS' "The Early Show". "But, I think that given his campaign and the way he campaigned, and the way that he's tried to conduct himself as president, it's not surprising that this is his position. Perhaps it's surprising he chose now to come forward with it because the politics may not be good for him."
Opponents, including some Sept. 11 victims' relatives, see the prospect of a mosque so near the destroyed trade center as an insult to the memory of those killed by Islamic terrorists in the 2001 attacks.
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