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Mosque issue reaches Pennsylvania campaign trail

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Thursday, Aug. 19, 2010

What started as a local zoning dispute over a proposed mosque two blocks from the World Trade Center site has spread into a dispute over First Amendment protections, religion in public life and the campaigns of Pennsylvania politicians.

Democrats have had to choose between party leaders who expressed support — albeit tepid — for the project and a majority of voters who say they're against it. Republicans remain mostly united in their opposition.

President Obama appeared to endorse the project Friday but clarified himself Saturday, saying he only endorsed the Muslim group's right to build the mosque — not the project itself. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she wants an investigation into who's funding the project and the opposition to it. Former GOP Speaker Newt Gingrich has compared it to putting a Nazi sign beside the Holocaust Museum.

Rep. Jason Altmire of McCandless was among the first congressional Democrats to come out against the project, and Keith Rothfus of Edgeworth, his Republican opponent in November's election, joined him Wednesday in opposing it.

"The folks who attacked us on September 11 were attacking us in the name of a religion," Rothfus said.

"It's an attack that was generated by Islamic extremists," Altmire said. "As a country, we are offended by this. This gets right back to the heart of what happened September 11."

Obama's opposition offers Democrats such as Altmire — those in conservative districts, facing voters who have soured on Obama — a chance to show their independence, said Muhlenberg College political scientist Chris Borick. Unlike Altmire's breaks with his party's leadership on climate change and health care votes, this has no legislative consequences, Borick said.

"The president has given them a great gift on this one," Borick said.

Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper, D-Erie, declined to take it.

"While I understand that emotions are running strong in regard to the Muslim community center in New York City, it's neither the government's nor an elected official's place to tell any religious group where they can or cannot practice their faith," Dahlkemper said. "Our Founding Fathers came to America to escape religious persecution.

"I believe very strongly in the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom, and I will not throw our Constitution or core values aside simply because it is an election year."

Others distanced themselves from the controversy.

Dan Connolly, a Democrat running against Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, and Democratic Senate candidate Joe Sestak said it's a local issue that has little to do with Pennsylvania.

"It's up to the planning commission and the city of New York," said Connolly, 26, of Upper St. Clair. He said relatives of people killed in the attacks should be allowed to stop it if it offends them. "You could argue it's a little bit discriminatory. But on the other hand, I think those people's feelings ought to be taken into account."

"New Yorkers have to make their decision — and it has to respect that constitutional right of religious freedom, and that separation of church and state applies to everyone equally," Sestak said Monday. "But as far as the details, that's a New York issue."

Republican Senate candidate Pat Toomey called the mosque "provocative and inappropriate," and urged that "pressure be applied" by government to move the project farther from the World Trade Center site.

"I'm not arguing that they don't have the technical, legal right," Toomey said. "I'm simply suggesting they should be encouraged to see the error of their ways. The murder of 3,000 Americans was committed very near to that site in the name of Islam."

Murphy said the families of victims have applied appropriate pressure, and it's up to the project leaders to respond.

"When the towers fell, the ashes of the buildings and the victims fell upon that building. ... No one is stopping them from doing it. It's that location," Murphy said. "The people who want to build it have a choice of where to build it, and I think they ought to be sensitive to those concerns."

Mike Kelly, a Butler Republican running against Dahlkemper, said his opposition has nothing to do with religion.

"I think we're a country that is totally tolerant of every religion. ... It's not a question of religion," said Kelly, 62. But, he said, people wouldn't be opposed to a Catholic church being built in the same place. "Because it wasn't a group of Catholic people who came to attack us on our home ground."

Rothfus and Kelly called the controversy a distraction from the country's economic problems.

"Let's find out why we have the loss of jobs," Kelly said, referencing Pelosi's call for an investigation. "I'm baffled by the president getting involved in it."

Rep. Mark Critz, D-Johnstown; his GOP opponent, Tim Burns; Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Swissvale; and Doyle's Republican opponent, Melissa Haluszczak, could not be reached for comment.

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