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Originally published Wednesday, August 18, 2010 at 4:23 PM

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Freedom of religion, more than a phrase

Construction of an Islamic community center in lower Manhattan goes to the heart of the value of religious freedom that rabid Republican leaders would trumpet were they were not attacking its exercise by others.

THE grotesque exploitation by mostly Republican leaders of plans for an Islamic community center in lower Manhattan is harmful to the party and insults the fundamental values of this nation.

Bigoted ranting about a Ground Zero mosque at the site of the World Trade Center attack is a willful distortion of the proposal and New York City geography. The facts are less important to GOP leaders than the political advantage they hope their calculated assaults will generate.

The center, named Park51 to lower its public profile, is envisioned as a $100 million investment in an area largely on hold since the 2001 attack. The center, which will include worship space, is being developed as a recreational and fitness facility and restaurant and cooking school, with a library, cultural exhibition areas and child care. An estimated 150 permanent jobs and 500 part-time positions are projected.

The building, former retail space, is not within sight of the World Trade Center property, but is in a neighborhood of historic Protestant and Catholic churches, and two small, unnoticed Islamic centers.

Cataloging the benign nature of the plans is a degrading task in a country founded by religious refugees and grounded in the free expression of religious beliefs.

For all of the manufactured opposition outside Manhattan, the center was endorsed by the local borough president, the New York City mayor, the congressional district's representative, and the New York state attorney general and governor.

New York City was not attacked by a 1,400-year-old faith. It was murderously assaulted by terrorists with a fetid stew of grievances about political conditions at home and self-serving images of America abroad.

In a free land that respects and treasures its laws and traditions, especially about religious freedom, the Muslim faithful cannot be made to suffer for the maniacal apostasy of those who defame their beliefs.

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