Kennesaw rejects freedom

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ….”

Your fear and bigotry is a damn poor excuse for denying somebody else the basic freedoms that are guaranteed in the Constitution. It’s cowardly. It’s illegal. And it contradicts everything that this country is supposed to hold dear.

But that’s what happened last week in Kennesaw, where the City Council voted to deny a Muslim group the right to lease space in a local strip mall to gather and pray.

Kennesaw officials understand that. They understand that the First Amendment binds them just as surely as it binds Congress, which is why they tried to disguise the true nature of that vote.

Mayor Mark Mathews, for example, tried to claim that the city was merely following a longstanding, ironclad policy against allowing church groups to operate out of retail centers. But as the Marietta Daily Journal reported, the mayor has a conveniently short memory. As recently as July, the council voted unanimously to allow a Pentecostal church to hold services in a retail space much like that proposed for the Muslim center. In fact, zoning regulations for the site approved for the Pentecostal church are considerably more strict than those for the retail space sought by the Muslim group.

Mathews and others also brought up spurious concerns about parking, but after prayer-center representatives negotiated parking limitations with city staff, the city council still voted against allowing the prayer center to proceed.

Last month, in a packed public hearing on the proposal, critics were often blunt about their reason for opposing the center, warning for example that allowing an Islamic prayer center in Kennesaw would “endanger our freedom.” Another argued that an Islamic center would undermine “the values and the merits of a community.”

“I am first a Christian and then an American citizen,” one woman told the council. “As a Christian I am to put no other God before my Lord, and I am also to love my neighbor. If you know me, then you know that I do my best to do those things … but I also have the right to protect myself. This project has to do with Sharia law.”

Outside the City Council meeting Monday night, a group of protesters marched with signs warning of Sharia coming to America and a potential Islamic takeover of the country. Nationwide, the decision was greeted with glee by anti-Muslim bigots, including predictions that the Muslim group would “get Brother Obama to force our mosque on a community that doesn’t want it.”

People have every right to hold and express those opinions about the Islamic faith, such as they are. However, they do not have the right to use government as a means to restrict that faith, even if it’s a faith that they fear and dislike. Freedom is not the willingness to let others pray and think and speak, but only as long as they conform to your own beliefs. If that’s all there was to freedom, it would be a lot less rare.

Freedom — the real thing, not the easy rhetoric about it — is dangerous. In fact, the only thing more dangerous than freedom is the absence of freedom. And for the moment, that’s what’s going on in Kennesaw.