January 24th, 2011
05:00 AM ET
By Dan Gilgoff, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
When the Anti-Defamation League - a leading Jewish group devoted to fighting anti-Semitism and "all forms of bigotry" - came out against the construction of an Islamic center and mosque near New York's ground zero last year, some critics alleged that the organization had lost its way.
"I would have expected the ADL to support the building of this Muslim community center," wrote Alan Dershowitz, an influential legal and Jewish voice. "...At the very least I would have expected it to remain silent and not to lend its powerful and distinguished voice to an opposition that includes many bigots."
Stephen Prothero, a prominent religion professor and CNN Belief Blog contributor, said the ADL's opposition to the Lower Manhattan Islamic center showed that the group and its leader, Abraham L. Foxman, "no longer occupy a moral high ground."
CNN host and Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaria returned an award and honorarium he'd received a few years earlier from the ADL, saying he hoped the move would "spur them to... return to their historic, robust defense of freedom of religion in America."
But several months after the controversy over the New York Islamic center has died down, the Anti-Defamation League has quietly emerged as a leading advocate for mosque construction projects that have run into local opposition across the country.
Last week, the group wrote a letter to the mayor and city council of Temecula, California, urging officials there to approve the construction of a 25,000-square-foot mosque project ahead of a vote on the matter this Tuesday.
The letter cites opponents who alleged the proposed mosque would be "a refuge for terrorists," and a nearby pastor who reportedly said that Islam and Christianity are like "oil and water" and that Islam is "intolerant at its core."
"We understand that such comments echo the fears and/or slurs that some Americans express toward Islam, but we urge you not to give in to them," the Anti-Defamation League's letter to officials in the Southern California city said.
"In the words of Abraham Lincoln," the letter continued, "we would appeal to the better angels of our nature and ask you to instead honor the great American tradition of freedom of religion for all and of showing respect for all religions."
The letter was backed by members of the Interfaith Coalition on Mosques, a group launched by the Anti-Defamation League last September, at the height of opposition to the Lower Manhattan Islamic center, to fight for mosque construction rights.
The coalition includes some of the naton's top religious leaders.
"When we had the debate on the ground zero mosque, it focused attention on mosques in this country and the fact that mosques were having problems getting permission to build," Foxman said, explaining the genesis of the coalition and of the ADL's mosque advocacy.
"Whereas the issue with the mosque in New York was more philosophical, more about sensitivities, a lot of these mosques had the legal right to build," he said. "And someone (at the ADL) said this was a legal right that needs protecting."
For nearly four months now, the Anti-Defamation League has directed its 30 regional offices to monitor mosque construction battles, while the group's New York headquarters has convened calls and sent e-mail updates on various mosque construction projects to members of the interfaith mosque coalition.
Coalition members are a mix of Christians, Jews and Muslims. Rev. Joel Hunter, an influential evangelical voice, and Eboo Patel, a Muslim youth leader - both of whom have advised the Obama White House - have both joined the group.
The coalition's first project was advocating for a proposed 52,000-square-foot Islamic center and mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, that was facing local opposition last fall.
Equipment at the mosque's construction site had been torched, triggering an arson investigation, and a plywood sign announcing the coming center was spray-painted "Not welcome."
When opponents filed a lawsuit to block the project from moving forward last September, the Anti-Defamation League filed a legal brief on behalf of the Interfaith Coalition on Mosques, arguing the suit sought to "deny the mosque's sponsors their religious freedom to worship freely."
The U.S. Justice Department also filed a brief for the mosque, and in November a judge refused to issue an order to halt construction of the Islamic center.
Though much of the opposition to the mosques in Murfreesboro and Temecula alleges that the projects violate local zoning laws because of expected traffic or noise, the ADL says such complaints can be smokescreens for anti-Islamic bigotry.
"If a community is expressing hatred, the burden is on them to show that there are compelling issues" that should prevent the projects, said Deborah Lauter, the ADL's civil rights director, who is active on the group's coalition on mosque construction.
For the mosque construction projections is has supported so far, the ADL's legal arguments revolve around the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a 1990 law requiring government to show a compelling interest if it imposes land use regulations on houses of worship.
The advocacy has not been without controversy. On Friday, one of Interfaith Coalition on Mosques' highest-profile members, Southern Baptist Convention public policy chief Richard Land, announced that he was leaving the group.
“While many Southern Baptists share my deep commitment to religious freedom and the right of Muslims to have places of worship, they also feel that a Southern Baptist denominational leader filing suit to allow individual mosques to be built is ‘a bridge too far,’” Land wrote in a letter to the ADL explaining the move.
Foxman, for his part, acknowledges that the ADL's advocacy for mosque construction projects could give the impression that the group is paying penance for its opposition to the New York Islamic center.
"Some people say so, and they're entitled to," he says.
But Foxman says the ADL's opposition to the Islamic center near ground zero still stands.
While recognizing that the New York project's organizers have a legal right to build, the ADL says it opposes the site for the project because it is insensitive to the survivors and victims of the September 11, 2001, attacks and their families and friends.
"Proponents of the Islamic center may have every right to build at this site, and may even have chosen the site to send a positive message about Islam," the ADL said in announcing its position on the proposed New York Islamic center last summer. "But ultimately this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right."
"In our judgment, building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain - unnecessarily - and that is not right," the statement continued.
Some prominent Muslims who the ADL later asked to join its Interfaith Coalition on Mosques declined the invitation, citing the group's stance on the New York Islamic center.
But Patel, one of three Muslims on Interfaith Coalition on Mosques, says he's been impressed by the time and energy the ADL is putting into investigating mosque construction projects.
"They are fulfilling the promise of organization,"says Patel says, who has taken criticism from some Muslims for joining the effort.
"Just because I disagreed with them on Cordoba House," Patel continued, using one of the names for the proposed Lower Manhattan Islamic center, "doesn't mean I can't work with them in another area."
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.