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Not everyone understands that there are two clauses regarding religious freedom embedded in the First Amendment: One which prohibits government from establishing (i.e., “favoring”) any religion, and one which prevents government from interfering with the free exercise of any religion. But too many fundamentalist Christian organizations in America are constantly pushing for a complete reversal of this cornerstone of American freedom: The establishment (legal favoring) of their religion, and the curtailment of the free exercise of at least some others.

A good example of this is the blatant hypocrisy of those religious organizations that call, for instance, for the prevention of the construction of the Muslim interfaith center in Manhattan (not, in fact “at ground zero”), while invoking a federal law which prevents the implementation of any local land use law which burdens the free-exercise of religion (resulting in the ability of religious organizations to build anything anywhere, regardless of zoning laws that would have prohibited the structure were it any other entity that were building it). In an archetypal example of this very un-American belief in the privileging of some religions over others, a leader in the conservative religious organization American Family Association, which in 2003 successfully fought to prevent Georgia from implementing a land-use law limiting the locations where a church could be constructed, is now calling for a complete moratorium on the building of mosques anywhere in the United States (http://news.yahoo.com/s/yblog_upshot/20100812/pl_yblog_upshot/conservative-activist-calls-for-nationwide-mosque-moratorium).

America has always had a split personality when it comes to religion:  A politically secular nation by Constitutional decree, founded by puritans and infused with an ever-present undercurrent of religious fanaticism. The reason for this, of course, is that the colonies had many who had come to practice (and proselytize) their own religion freely (all Christian denominations, originally), but not all such groups wanted to practice (and proselytize) the same religion freely. The necessary compromise was the legal institutionalization of “live and let live” when it comes to religious exercise: Government will neither favor nor disfavor any religion.

But, while this doctrine may have matured into the enlightened vision of the framers of the Constitution, it originated in religious zealotry, not tolerance. Each of those original religious sects would have gladly imposed itself on others, were it able to. And their descendants have much the same attitude.

Where such attitudes prevail, we wind up with theocracy and draconian religious laws, such as Muslim sharia law. The irony in this particular contest, between radical Islam and radical Christianity, is that the two sides, vehemently opposed to one another, are so strikingly similar.

And, of course, the radicals on both sides oppose the Moderates who seek only a peaceful, prosperous, and mutually respectful coexistence. The Muslim interfaith center in Manhattan is just such a voice of reason, and should be embraced as the epitome of what Americans stand for: Mutual tolerance and mutual goodwill, and the free exercise of religion for all.

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