When I saw this statement, released by the Center for Inquiry a couple of days ago, I was horrified. Over the weekend, I've been mentally composing my detailed response. I'm still concerned that such a statement was ever issued and I hope that there will be wider consultation before the CFI ever again goes down such a path. I for one would have been opposing the statement loudly if anyone had asked my opinion.
Fortunately, the statement has been withdrawn and replaced by something that I fully agree with. All I need to say about the original statement is that I disagree vehemently with the idea that religious houses of worship should be banned from the vicinity of Ground Zero, the World Trade Center site. I don't see how else the statement can be interpreted, but I don't need to offer my full reasons for disagreeing with it, as I thought I'd have to do.
It seems that wiser heads at the CFI have prevailed, so congratulations to the organisation for getting this one right, even if an initial error was made. The swift retraction of the original statement restores my trust considerably. Hopefully, no illiberal statements of policy will issue from the CFI again.
Just briefly, my position on the Muslim centre being established a couple of city blocks from Ground Zero is that it should meet the same zoning regulations as a cinema, a shop, a secular cultural centre, a business's corporate headquarters, a Christian church, or whatever else might be put there. If it causes no more problems for the physical amenity of other people than those other things would, it should be able to go ahead on the same basis.
The CFI now agrees with me:
CFI maintains that an Islamic center, including a mosque, near Ground Zero, in and of itself, is no different than a church, temple, or synagogue. It is undeniable that the 9/11 terrorists were inspired by their understanding of Islam, and that currently there are far more Islamic terrorists in the world than terrorists of other faiths, but those facts are not relevant to the location of the Islamic center, absent evidence that terrorists are involved in this endeavor, and there is no such evidence.
The mere fact that some might find the idea of a mosque near Ground Zero offensive is not relevant. It's true that some kinds of extreme offence shade into harm and are cognisable by the law - e.g. if you nauseate me by defecating in front of me on a tram. But in a case like that there are also public health issues, so mere offence will not be the only consideration. In any event, the law should not generally be banning something solely because it causes offence to certain others, especially if it's not extreme in-your-face offence of the kind that produces nausea or disturbs the peace. It's most certainly not enough that the mere idea of something happening offends certain people. It would be nice if we could all keep the Millian harm principle in mind in these public policy debates.
In the end, there should be no impediment to the proposed Muslim centre merely because some people find the idea of such a thing in the vicinity of Ground Zero offensive. If the centre meets ordinary zoning provisions, that should be the end of the story as far as the law is concerned.
Of course, we can still investigate and criticise the beliefs and activities of the people involved with the centre. Christopher Hitchens has been doing that, and I applaud him for it, but he's made it clear that this is completely different from calling for the centre's prohibition. He's been able to combine tolerance, in the relevant sense, with criticism. That's the standard we should all be aiming at.
Edit: It seems that the original statement has now been removed from the site, which may be a good thing as it only creates confusion to leave it there while superseding it with something else.