NYC Mosque Funding Request Raises Church-State Separation Concerns

New York City’s so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” is back in the news, with developers making a request for public funding that may violate church-state separation.

The project for an Islamic Community Center and Mosque, known officially as Park51, generated controversy last summer after organizers announced plans to build the facility about three blocks from the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack.

Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and other right-wing political figures attacked the plan, insisting that it was an insult to put a mosque so close to the site of the attack. But Americans United and other civil liberties groups pointed out that the project’s developers had complied with applicable laws and had every right to build the center.

A recent request by the center’s developers may raise church-state issues, however. In November, it was reported that the project’s developers have requested $5 million in aid from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, an agency connected with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The agency exists to allocate money to rebuild the neighborhood in lower Manhattan that was damaged during the attack.

“Park51 has applied for a Lower Manhattan Development Corporation grant,” Sharif El-Gamal of SOHO Properties, told CNN. El-Gamal said the grant would help pay for “social service programs and services for homeless vets, two multi-cultural art exhibits and cultural needs.”

The Park51 project could ultimately cost as much as $100 million, and its backers have apparently been experiencing difficulties raising the money.

While Americans United supports the right of the Islamic group to build the center with private funds, it opposes public funding of this or any other house of worship.

“While it’s true the center will be performing some social services and be open to the community, it still contains a mosque and is religious in nature,” wrote Sandhya Bathija, AU communications associate, on AU’s “Wall of Separation” blog. “Taxpayer funds should never go to support the erection of any building used wholly or in part for religious activities.”

Added Bathija, “To avoid all these constitutional concerns, it will be best if the developer of Park51 uses private dollars to fund the project. Just like all other projects and activities that are religious in nature – whether it involves a temple, synagogue or church – the government (and taxpayer funds) should stay out of it.”