NEW YORK – A city panel Tuesday cleared the way for the construction near ground zero of a mosque that has caused a political uproar over religious freedom and Sept. 11 even as opponents vowed to press their case in court.
The Landmarks Preservation Commission voted unanimously to deny landmark status to a building two blocks from the World Trade Center site that developers want to tear down and convert into an Islamic community center and mosque. The panel said the 152-year-old lower Manhattan building isn't distinctive enough to be considered a landmark.
The decision drew praise from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who stepped before cameras on Governor's Island with the Statue of Liberty as a backdrop shortly after the panel voted and called the mosque project a key test of Americans' commitment to religious freedom.
"The World Trade Center site will forever hold a special place in our city, in our hearts," said Bloomberg, a Republican turned independent. "But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves, and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans, if we said no to a mosque in lower Manhattan."
The vote was a setback for opponents of the mosque, who say it disrespects the memory of those killed at the hands of Islamic terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001. Jeers and shouts of "Shame on you" could be heard after the panel's vote.
The American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative advocacy group founded by the Rev. Pat Robertson, announced it would challenge the panel's decision in state court Wednesday.
ACLJ attorney Brett Joshpe said the group would file a petition alleging that the landmarks panel "acted arbitrarily and abused its discretion."
The proposed mosque has emerged as a national political issue, with prominent Republicans from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich lining up against it. The Anti-Defamation League, the nation's most prominent Jewish civil rights group, known for advocating religious freedom, shocked many groups when it spoke out against the mosque last week.
The League said building the Islamic center "in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain — unnecessarily — and that is not right."
Bloomberg said Tuesday that denying religious freedom to Muslims would play into terrorists' hands. He said firefighters and other first responders who died in the Sept. 11 attacks had done so to protect the U.S. Constitution.
"In rushing into those burning buildings, not one asked, 'What god do you pray to? What beliefs do you hold?'" Bloomberg said of the first responders. "We do not honor their lives by denying the very constitutional rights they died protecting."
Former Rep. Rick Lazio, a Republican running for governor of New York, attended the commission meeting with a handful of opponents to the mosque, which is being developed by a group called the Cordoba Initiative.
"This is not about religion," Lazio said. "It's about this particular mosque called the Cordoba Mosque, it's about it being at ground zero, it's about it being spearheaded by an imam who has associated himself with radical Islamic causes and has made comments that should chill every single American, frankly."
Lazio said the group's imam, Feisal Abdul Rauf, had refused to call the Palestinian group Hamas a terrorist organization. Rauf also said in a "60 Minutes" interview televised shortly after Sept. 11 that "United States policies were an accessory to the crime that happened."
The Cordoba Initiative says on its website that its goal is to foster a better relationship between the Muslim world and the West, "steering the world back to the course of mutual recognition and respect and away from heightened tensions."
"We believe it will be a place where the counter-momentum against extremism will begin," the imam's wife, Daisy Khan, told The Associated Press Friday. "We are committed to peace."
The center's board will include members of other religions, the project's backers said. There also will be a Sept. 11 memorial to the victims of the attacks, Khan said.
The commission's decision not to designate the existing building as a landmark means that the developers can tear it down and start from scratch. If the building had been declared a landmark, they could have created a smaller mosque and community center there.
A partner in the project, SoHo Properties, bought the property for nearly $5 million. Early plans call for a 13-story, $100 million Islamic center.
Cordoba wants to transform the building into a glass tower with a swimming pool, basketball court, auditorium and culinary school besides the mosque. The center, called Park51, also would have a library, art studios and meditation rooms.
Landmarks Commissioner Stephen Byrns said the building's proximity to ground zero and the fact it was struck by airplane debris during the Sept. 11 attacks don't qualify it as a landmark.
"The debris field around ground zero was widespread, and one cannot designate hundreds of buildings on that criterion alone," Byrns said.
SoHo Properties CEO Sharif El-Gamal said he was "deeply grateful to the landmarks commission and to its staff."
Park51 spokesman Oz Sultan said there was no timeline for starting demolition or construction, adding the building phase was expected take 18 to 48 months.
"It's going to be something that fits in with the New York skyline," he said.
While landmarks commission members went over the existing building's architectural features such as cornices and colonnades, some in the audience of about 60 at Pace University in lower Manhattan held signs telegraphing their opposition.
Linda Rivera's sign read, "Don't glorify murders of 3,000. No 9/11 victory mosque." She cried after the board's vote.
"I lost 3,000 American brothers and sisters, including courageous policemen and firemen, and this is a betrayal," she said.
But Zead Ramadan, president of the board of the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said Islam is "a religion of peace and justice."
"The people here are trying to connect this vile attack on our nation to the religion Islam," he said, "though that exact act stands against everything that Islam stands for."
Associated Press writer Cristian Salazar contributed to this report.