In a long, hot summer, one hot-button issue that seems to grow more heated every day is the proposed building of a Muslim mosque and cultural center in downtown New York City. The flashpoint is its location only two blocks from Ground Zero, the site of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Among the many points of argument between commentators across the ideological spectrum, the argument for or against the center boils down to two essentials: what is permissible and what is appropriate. {{more}}

Logically it is clear that as long as conditions like adherence to local zoning and building codes are met, federal, state or local governments may not prohibit a private group from buying a property and building on it only because the group represents a particular religion.

To do so would violate not only the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution that guarantees the right of free exercise of religion. It would also violate the principles of religious freedom taught by the Second Vatican Council: “Injury therefore is done to the human person and to the very order established by God for human life, if the free exercise of religion is denied in society, provided just public order is observed. (Dignitatis Humanae, no. 3).

The right to worship in a mosque, synagogue or church must not be denied because of religion. The Catholic Church’s long memory in Philadelphia recalls anti-Catholic riots and church burnings. That happened in Pennsylvania, the place Quakers founded precisely to protect religious freedom. Restricting religious freedom is unacceptable in this country.

Emotionally, however, the debate takes a different turn. Sensitivities even almost nine years after 9/11 remain high. Many Americans, especially the survivors of those victims, oppose the appropriateness of situating a mosque at Ground Zero. Emotions are not insignificant, and the people’s voices must be considered.

Faced with denying a fundamental human right to worship or disregarding many people’s passionate emotions, a third way exists.

On the site in question, a cultural center should be established that welcomes both visitors and residents to learn the traditions and join in the prayers of the three great monotheistic religions of the world, Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Perhaps call it a “Remembrance and Renewal Center,” the result of the fruitful collaboration of local religious leaders. Such a center will take courage, creativity and cooperation. No less should be expected from people of faith. A center that affirms religious liberty would make a lasting contribution to peace through interreligious dialogue.

Despite the perversion of religion by terrorists, that which they destroyed in 2001 may become the place where people discover, through religion, their destiny in love of the one God and all His people.