President Obama on Saturday said he had not expressed an opinion the day before on whether a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero is appropriate, as the White House scrambled to limit the political damage from the president’s seeming expression of support for the project at a dinner with Muslim leaders at the White House.
“My intention was simply to let people know what I thought,” Obama said Saturday, after causing a stir Friday at a White House Iftar dinner to celebrate the Muslim holiday of Ramadan.
“In this country, we treat everybody equally and in accordance with the law, regardless of race, regardless of religion. I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there,” Obama told reporters accompanying him and first lady Michelle Obama on a trip to the Gulf Coast.
“I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding.”
The president’s clarification appeared to be a significant step backwards from remarks he made Friday at the Iftar dinner, when he seemed to wholeheartedly endorse the idea of building a mosque and Muslim community center near the site of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack in New York.
“As a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country,” Obama said Friday. “And 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. This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable.”
But deputy White House press secretary Bill Burton said in a statement Saturday: “Just to be clear, the President is not backing off in any way from the comments he made last night.”
“It is not his role as President to pass judgment on every local project. But it is his responsibility to stand up for the Constitutional principle of religious freedom and equal treatment for all Americans,” Burton said. “What he said last night, and reaffirmed today, is that If a church, a synagogue or a Hindu temple can be built on a site, you simply cannot deny that right to those who want to build a Mosque.”
But criticism from the right said the president was ducking the real issue, which is whether it is appropriate or wise for the Muslim group who wants to build the mosque and community center – the Cordoba Initiative – to do so two blocks from Ground Zero.
“Mr. President, should they or should they not build a mosque steps away from where radical Islamists killed 3000 people? Please tell us your position. We all know that they have the right to do it, but should they? And, no, this is not above your pay grade,” wrote former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, on her Facebook page, the venue where she has chosen to make most of her public comments.
Palin also questioned why Obama did not encourage the Cordoba Initiative to accept an offer from New York Gov. David Paterson, who said he would donate state land to the group if they would agree to move further away from Ground Zero.
“Why haven’t they jumped at this offer? Why are they apparently so set on building a mosque steps from what you have described, in agreement with me, as ‘hallowed ground’?” Palin wrote.
White House aides did not respond to questions about whether the president decided to clarify his remarks Saturday based on feedback from any particular person or organization.