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Lower Manhattan: Birthplace of religious freedom

One of the nice things about having Jon Meacham as a host of Need to Know is that he knows history — really, really knows history. This comes in handy when we want to reach past the heat and noise of a controversy in the news, and get some perspective.

This week, there was loud and sometimes overwrought discourse about the proposed cultural center and mosque near the site of the World Trade Center attacks.  Strong opinions were everywhere, from politicians, pundits, and religious leaders. As for the families of the 9/11 victims, they’re divided about it.

So we turn to Mr. Meacham, who reminds us that the struggle over religious freedom has quite a long history in Manhattan — one that’s older than the nation itself.

For more on the furor over the $100 million project, and President Obama’s remarks on the controversy at a White House dinner last week, see Need to Know’s previous online coverage.

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  • John R. Goodson

    The problem is not about constitutional right to worshop, but more of common sense. Why atagonise people by putting a huge mosque and study center near ground zero. There is a smaller mosgue nearby. The area for the proposed mosque is not in the heart of any ethnic muslem neighborhood, but a financial district. In my opionion it’s about some people in the muslem community trying show the rest of the world that we can shovel sand in the face of the Great US Satan.

  • Debbie Williams

    There are many mixed opinions, emotions and ideas about the project…even among the 9/11 surviving families: “As for the families of the 9/11 victims, they’re divided about it…” The division among the people of America is the bigger issue. Some people I have talked to look at it the total opposite than you do Mr.Goodson. I’ve heard one comment that the cultural center and the prayer mosque atop it is “giving the 9/11 terrorists the middle finger…” It is showing those terrorists that America will stand strong and united despite their attempts to divide us by using the religion of Islam as it’s foundation for terrorism. So many American Muslims who have followed Islam over the years long before the 9/11 attacks have worked to unite communities and are not radical extremists or terrorists. It is about freedom of religion and the terror caused by the 9/11 terrorists was an attept to destroy America by dividing it and if we deny anyone freedom of religion in America, the terrorists have won. From what I understand, the cultural center will be open to all people, not just Muslims.

  • James Higgins

    I was at first against the idea of a mosque near the 911 site but after thinking about it I changed my mind. This is America and we are not like every other country. We accept people with differances as long as they obey our laws and respect others. If 2 blocks away is too close then how far should they go? 10? 20? another city? It seems this has been made more of a political football for the right wing conservatives then anything else. We will always have extreme right and left wings being heard from but the main body of American people are in between.

  • Daniel Beloat

    This is just my personal observation but, it seems to me that American xenophobia and intolerance has been on the rise since, President Obama won the Democratic Party nomination in 2008. Political partisans have been pushing the boundaries of acceptable public displays of bigotry to the point where, the citizenry is ready to abandon one of our Nation’s founding principles.

  • RELIGION: Lower Manhattan | Birthplace of religious freedom – The Culturalite Magazine /// NEWS & FEATURES

    [...] One of the nice things about having Jon Meacham as a host of Need to Know is that he knows history — really, really knows history. This comes in handy when we want to reach past the heat and noise of a controversy in the news, and get some perspective… [...]

  • Srinivas Jayaraman

    The building of a mosque near ground zero should be given up. There may be a constitutional right to build it but we have to take the population’s disapproval into account. The group that wants to build it is needlessly creating animosity towards all Muslims by a population that does not understand that they are indulging in collective punishment. There are very fine Muslims and they are all being ill served by this unnecessary provocation. I am not concerned about cantankerous Rush Limbaugh’s attack on OBAMA as if he is the authority to stop the building. Rush dare not criticize Mayor Bloomberg or the Landmark Commission as that is not advantageous to him. But I am concerned about tarnishing a whole community as if they are responsible for the actions of a criminals. It is like saying every Mexican belongs to a drug gang, while they themselves are victims of the gangsters. I have many Muslim friends and they are such good people and I hate when they are being given a bum rap, for no fault of theirs.

  • Thomas Goodfellow

    Mr. Meacham,

    You missed an opportunity to discuss another important and precedent setting case involving the establishment of religious freedom in the New York Colonie in the early 1700s. At the time the Anglican Church (Church of England) was the established church. A Presbyterian preacher from Accomac, Virginia Colony, named Francis Makemie, a native of Donegal, Ireland, conducted a non-conforming worship service in Flushing, Long Island. Governor Cornbury had this man arrested for preaching without a license. Makemie was held prisoner and found guilty, in spite of the support of the New England Puritans and others, and was fined to cover the Government’s legal costs and costs of imprisonment. The English Governor was attempting to restrict religious practice in the Colonies to the established Church. Makemie argued, unsuccessfully at first, that the Toleration Acts of the UK extended to the colonists and those included the right for certain dissenting groups to conduct worship services. The case was appealed to the Privy Council in London and Lord Cornbury’s decision was overturned to establish that colonists had the same religious liberties under the Toleration Acts as subjects in the United Kingdom. Governor Cornbury was eventually recalled to England. The Makemie case is an important precursor of the more frequently noted Peter Zenger “freedom of the press/free speech” case in 1736. The Acts of 1689 excluded Catholics and non-trinitarians (The Colony of Maryland, where Makemie resided at the time, had it’s own Act of Toleration which included the rights of Catholics) but was nonetheless precedent setting in establishing future religious toleration in Colonies and the United States. See Makemie has been recognized by both the Republic of Ireland and the United States of America as a significant early colonial religious leader.

  • TJ Colatrella

    Jefferson said: “I have never told my own religion, nor scrutinized that of another..!”

    John Adams, while in Amsterdam wrote that “Catholics were allowed to practice their faith freely but denied the right to a steeple upon their churches”, even this for Adams was unacceptable..

    I wish everyone in America had a copy of Norman cousin’s great book In God We Trust, his compilation of all the letters between Our Founders on the topic of Religion..

    Also for some reason the Media chooses to refuse to reference and especially name, The Religious Land Use Institutionalized Persons Act , also known as RLUIPA an Act of Congress which was passed to reassert the 1st and 14th Amendments over Zoning and Planning Boards…do some research it is very short direct specific only around 3 pages with a few definitions pages..

    When I hear others claim this issue of the “Mosque” In NYC will be settled in court it only reinforces their ignorance and lack of knowledge on this most important topic…

  • John Duggan

    Jon Meacham.

    Thank you for your interesting and informative segment on intolerance and religious freedom in lower Manhattan. In 30+ years of living in New York City I have never been bothered by a single Church, Synagogue or one of the 100+ Mosques already here.

    There are problems here in NYC! They do not include community centers that happen to include additional places for people to pray.

    It is reassuring to know that the majority of my Manhattan neighbors support the project: “53% to 31%, with 16% unsure”. [Wikipedia]. Your timely and courageous piece was a valuable segment in one of the better Need To Know programs.

    Thanks again!

  • Maureen Swift

    Thank you, Jon, for your thoughtful coverage of religious freedom and its place in our history. We need to understand that the sort of protests we are seeing against this mosque and others throughout the nation will only serve to radicalize those who believe that the United States is against all of Isalm. Let’s remember that we were founded by people escaping religious intolerance.

    I’m really enjoying Need to Know. This was a particularly good show.

  • Video: Lower Manhattan: Birthplace of religious freedom | Need to Know | PBS « blue grass

    [...] Video: Lower Manhattan: Birthplace of religious freedom | Need to Know | PBS.   [...]

  • Mary Bowers

    Many have reminded us that “our” nation was established by those seeking freedom of religion, to worship as they chose. However, I would like to add the fact that the native Americans were never “consulted” as to which of their lands could be usurped. Those who say that Ground Zero is sacred land and should not have an Islamic community center nearby, probably have not considered that we Christians have built on and/or destroyed a number of American Indian lands. The United States of America needs to welcome the opportunity to engage peacefully with other faiths. Thank you for your fine program, Need to Know.