WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama sought Saturday to draw a distinction between supporting a Muslim group’s right to build a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero in New York — a right he championed in a speech the night before — and thinking the project is a good idea.
"I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there,” he told reporters in Panama City, Fla. He, his wife, daughter Sasha and family dog Bo are spending an abbreviated weekend there as part of an effort to help Gulf Coast tourism that has suffered because of the BP oil spill.
The president said that “I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That's what our country is about.”
By deciding to weigh in on the issue Friday, Obama opened himself up to criticism from those who oppose the placement of the project. His remarks Saturday appeared to be an effort to dampen that rage that ensued by hinting without actually saying it that he may not consider the proposed location wise. In any event, Obama has now made clear that he does not intend to get involved in any campaign to pressure the group to relocate.
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But the fact that he felt the need to wade into the controversy for a second day in a row shows just how sensitive the issue is politically.
The White House insisted, however, that the president was not backtracking.
"Just to be clear, the president is not backing off in any way from the comments he made last night,” Deputy White House Press Secretary Bill Burton said in a statement later. “It is not his role as president to pass judgment on every local project,” Burton said. "But it is his responsibility to stand up for the constitutional principle of religious freedom and equal treatment for all Americans.”
In his remarks Friday night at the White House to a group of Muslim-Americans gathered for a dinner for Ramadan, Obama spoke in detail about the nation’s historical commitment to religious freedom and how the Cordoba House project in New York deserves the same treatment as a planned church or synagogue. He did not, in those remarks, suggest that just because the group could didn’t mean it should. Polling shows a majority of Americans oppose the project in its planned location.
On Saturday, House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio issued a statement saying, “The decision to build this mosque so close to Ground Zero is deeply troubling, as is the president’s decision to endorse it. The American people certainly don’t support it. The fact that someone has the right to do something doesn’t necessarily make it the right thing to do.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Obama’s rival in the general election in 2008, said he too opposes the planned location for the mosque. “I would hope that all the parties would sit down and discuss an alternative location for the mosque that would meet with the approval of the people of New York City and the victims’ families.”
The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank with White House ties, issued a statement of support for the project at its planned location. “Building this facility will strengthen America’s fight against al Qaida,” by rejecting fear and encouraging “contemporary Islam.”
“The American experiment with freedom and religious liberty would not have been unique if it was easy and would not have survived without brave decisions to sustain it.”
A variety of people, from Republicans to regular New Yorkers, said they opposed the mosque and were troubled by Obama’s Friday remarks.
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