The secularist Center for Inquiry issued a press release on Friday headlined: "The Center for Inquiry Urges That Ground Zero Be Kept Religion-Free." The press release outraged many CFI supporters, including me. In the original release, CFI opposed the construction of an Islamic cultural center, or any other house of worship, in the "immediate vicinity" of Ground Zero.

The old press release ignored basic facts. The proposed community center, Park51, is neither a house of worship, nor in the immediate vicinity of the former World Trade Center. The center will be two blocks away from the Vesey Street side of the WTC footprint, and even further away from the Ground Zero main drag on Church Street. Park51 is about seven blocks away from the planned 9-11 Tribute Center on Liberty Street, just off Church. A quick glance at a map of Lower Manhattan should convince anyone that this whole "controversy" was ginned up. You can't even see Park Place from the former WTC site.

The other factual problem with the initial press release's exhortation to "keep" "Ground Zero" "religion-free" is that the area around the Twin Towers has never been, and will never be, religion-free (or strip club-free, or discount shoe emporium-free). This is downtown New York City, folks. The major Ground Zero tourist strip is Church Street, which backs onto the old St. Paul's churchyard. There's already an honest-to-goodness mosque about as close to Ground Zero as Park51 would be. I find it ironic that an ostensibly secular organization would buy into the idea that there's a magic zone around the former World Trade Center where city life has to be suspended forever out of reverence for the dead.

CFI has issued a new press release with the intent of clarifying its stance on the proposed Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan. Unfortunately, the new press release isn't much of an improvement over its predecessor.

In the new release, CFI reaffirms its commitment to religious freedom and asserts that there should be no legal barrier to Park51 from being built. That's nice. It's also little behind the times. The last potential legal impediment to building Park51 dissolved three weeks ago when the Landmarks Preservation Commission unanimously rejected a bad-faith bid to preserve the old Burlington Coat Factory at 51 Park Place as an architectural treasure for the ages. Mayor Bloomberg came out strongly in favor of Park51 three weeks ago.

In the new press release, CFI repeats its request that the debate over Park51 not be "politicized." I don't even know what that's supposed to mean. At this point, not even the most retrograde mosque-basher believes that any branch of the city, state, or federal government has the slightest power to stop this development. Yet the facts haven't put the slightest dent in the demagoguery. Politicians still have a First Amendment right to rabble-rouse around Park51. When they do, are they "politicizing" the issue, if they aren't proposing a specific law or policy to ban the development? This is a political issue, regardless. It's a question of what kind of society we want to live in. Do we free-thinking humanists want to fight for a free, open, tolerant society or do we want to join the Christianist pile-on whenever a more vulnerable world religion is on the ropes?

I'm glad the new press release explicitly rejects the insinuation that all Muslims are terrorists. Baby steps, baby steps.

[Photo credit: David Shankbone, Creative Commons.]