In this country, we don't make urban-planning decisions strictly on the basis of religion. For that reason, the so-called ground-zero mosque had to move forward.
As New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg asked: "Should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here."
Bloomberg may have been right on the basic point, but like so many on the left, he ended up putting the emphasis in the wrong place.
He didn't say it was a tough call for local officials. Rather, like someone trying to cover a mysterious odor with perfume, he portrayed the outcome — permission to build a $100 million Islamic center two blocks from ground zero — as a wondrous affirmation of all that is good and true.
A few days later, he let the mask fall completely and said mosque opponents "should be ashamed of themselves."
Really? We're told this controversy is mainly about religious tolerance, but too many questions remain unanswered to take such bromides at face value.
Consider Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who's heading up the project. He's described as a moderate Muslim who wants to build interfaith understanding. If so, why insist on a multi-story complex so close to where 3,000 Americans were incinerated by Islamic jihadists?
If this is about tolerance and sensitivity, shouldn't mosque organizers grant the sensitivity they demand of others and accept an alternate location?
Nor is it clear that Rauf is the moderate his supporters claim.
In a "60 Minutes" interview 19 days after Sept. 11, he was asked whether the United States deserved the attack.
His muddled answer: "I wouldn't say that the United States deserved what happened. But the United States' policies were an accessory to the crime that happened."
An accessory? How? "Because we have been accessory to a lot of innocent lives dying in the world. In fact, in the most direct sense, Osama bin Laden is made in the USA."
One of the mosque project's most obvious red flags is the lack of information about funding. Where's the money coming from?
Rauf and other organizers wont say. Why not?
To many on the left, the motives of Rauf and the other mosque organizers is not a significant issue.
But to two members of the Muslim Canadian Congress, Raheel Raza and Tarek Fatah, what Rauf is doing is perfectly clear, and it has nothing to do with tolerance.
"[W]e Muslims know the idea behind the Ground Zero mosque is meant to be a deliberate provocation to thumb our noses at the infidel," Raza and Fatah wrote recently in the Ottawa Citizen.
"The proposal has been made in bad faith," they continued. "Do [organizers] not understand that building a mosque at Ground Zero is equivalent to permitting a Serbian Orthodox church near the killing fields of Srebrenica where 8,000 Muslim men and boys were slaughtered?"
A Muslim group truly interested in fostering goodwill would be willing to accept an alternative site. That Rauf and his backers have refused sends a clear message that undermines their professed commitment to religious understanding.
Rauf, however, could help change that impression. Last week, it was revealed that he would participate in a tour of the Middle East, as part of a State Department program aimed at helping people in other countries "understand our society and the role of religion within our society," as a spokesman put it.
The imam should take a cue from The Wall Street Journal's Dan Henninger, and see this as an opportunity to voice public support for religious freedom in Islamic countries, where Christians, Jews and other religious minorities are often persecuted. That would do a great deal to answer some of the questions surrounding the ground-zero mosque.