- Associated Press - Monday, August 16, 2010

The Senate’s top Democrat on Monday came out against plans to build an Islamic mosque and cultural center near the site of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, breaking with President Obama on what has mushroomed into a hot-button election-year issue.

Locked in a tight race, Nevada Sen. Harry Reid became the highest profile Democrat to break with Mr. Obama, who last week backed the right for the developers to develop the complex near Manhattan’s ground zero. Since his comments Friday, the Democratic president and his aides have worked to explain the statement, which drew criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike.

“The First Amendment protects freedom of religion,” said Jim Manley, a Reid spokesman. “Senator Reid respects that, but thinks that the mosque should be built someplace else.”

Critics have said the location of the mosque is insensitive because the terrorists who struck were Islamic extremists. The plans call for a $100 million Islamic center two blocks from where almost 3,000 people perished when hijacked jetliners slammed into the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001.

Mr. Reid is in a close campaign for re-election. A spokesman for Republican Sharron Angle, Mr. Reid’s opponent, said Muslims have the right to worship anywhere, but Mr. Obama’s support for construction of the mosque at ground zero “ignored the wishes of the American people, this time at the expense of victims of 9/11 and their families.”

Angle spokesman Jarrod Agen argued that the families consider the mosque at the World Trade Center site to be an “affront to the memories of their loved ones.” He called on Mr. Reid to respond to Mr. Obama’s comments.

Groups representing families of victims of the terrorist strike have been divided over the project. New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is a strong backer of the mosque, but polls show that nearly two-thirds of Americans question the propriety of the project on the site.

On Friday, Mr. Obama used an annual dinner at the White House celebrating the Islamic holy month of Ramadan to weigh in on a controversy that grabbed New York and the nation.

“As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country,” Mr. Obama said.

“That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances,” he said.

While insisting that the place where the twin towers once stood was indeed “hallowed ground,” Mr. Obama said that the proper way to honor it was to apply American values at the nearby property.

In days since, White House aides have worked to dampen the political power behind the president’s words.

“I can’t speak to the politics of what the Republicans are doing,” deputy press secretary Bill Burton told reporters traveling with Mr. Obama to Wisconsin on Monday.

But top Republicans, including a number who could challenge Mr. Obama in 2012, have hammered Mr. Obama for backing the right of the Muslims to build the Manhattan mosque, and for his subsequent statement that he was not passing judgment on the wisdom of the project.

“We all know that they have the right to do it, but should they?” former Alaska Republican Gov. Sarah Palin asked on Twitter. “This is not above your pay grade.”

More bluntly, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich accused Mr. Obama of “pandering to radical Islam,” adding, “Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington. We would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbor. There’s no reason for us to accept a mosque next to the World Trade Center.”

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