All major candidates for Florida’s highly coveted open Senate seat have waded into the debate over the Muslim community center to be built in Lower Manhattan, but unlike most recent issues, the candidates are not all standing with the leader of their party.
President Obama voiced support for the group’s right to build the center over the weekend, which spurred an outpouring of reactions from candidates vying for office across the country. Democratic candidates who have been quick to side with the president on other matters are showing apprehension about joining him on this issue, a phenomenon that is clearly being played out in Florida.
Independent candidate Gov. Charlie Crist, Republican candidate Marco Rubio, and Democratic candidates Rep. Kendrick Meek and Jeff Greene have all spoken publicly about the issue, while Crist is the only one who has shown outright support for the president’s stance.
“I think he’s right,” Crist said of Obama’s recent statements about the Muslim community center that is planned to be built two blocks north of the Ground Zero site. “I mean you know we’re a country that in my view stands for freedom of religion and respect for others. I know there are sensitivities and I understand them. This is a place where you’re supposed to be able to practice your religion without the government telling you you can’t.”
Rubio, who has a five percentage point lead against Crist in the latest Rasmussen poll, took a hard line against the project Saturday.
“We are a nation founded on strong principles of religious freedom. However, we cannot be blind to the pain 9/11 caused our nation and the families of the victims,” Rubio said in a statement Saturday. “It is divisive and disrespectful to build a mosque next to the site where 3,000 innocent people were murdered at the hands of Islamic extremism. I strongly disagree with President Obama and Charlie Crist.”
With the primary only days away, Democratic candidates Greene and Meek squared off in a weekend debate, and were questioned about their thoughts on the project. Both campaigns issued statements on the matter and clearly differed in their opinion. Greene, who joined the race only recently, stands opposed to the construction of the Islamic center near Ground Zero and is critical of the president for not doing more on the issue.
“Freedom of religion might provide the right to build the mosque in the shadow of ground zero, but common sense and respect for those who lost their lives and loved ones gives sensible reason to build the mosque someplace else,” said Greene. “President Obama had the chance to show leadership by calling on the mosque’s supporters to find a more appropriate location.”
Meek took a softer tone on the issue, and has kept quiet on the whether he thinks the project should go forward.
“Our nation was founded on the pillar of religious freedom and construction of the mosque should not be denied on religious grounds but this is ultimately a decision for the local community in New York City to make,” Meek said. During the debate on Saturday, Meek added, “I’m not going to step in front of a decision that’s already been made in New York City.”
The debate over the project has also stretched beyond the Senate race in the state. Alex Sink, the Democratic candidate for governor, took an opposing stance in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times.
“Like all Floridians, I’m grateful for our constitutional right to freedom of religion,” said Sink, who is currently serving as Florida’s chief financial officer. “It is my personal opinion that the wishes of the 9/11 victims’ families and friends must be respected. They are opposed to this project and I share their view.”
Her opponent, Republican Rick Scott, released a campaign ad today focusing directly on opposition to the project.
The Florida primary elections are scheduled for August 24.