Obama Speaks Out in Favor of Mosque Near Ground Zero

President Barack Obama has spoken out in favor of allowing a controversial mosque to be built near Ground Zero.

At a White House dinner Friday evening celebrating the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, the president said that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else. He said that includes the right to build a place of worship on private property in lower Manhattan.

In the president's remarks as prepared for delivery at the dinner, he noted that, "We must all recognize and respect the sensitivities surrounding the development of lower Manhattan. The 9/11 attacks were a deeply traumatic event for our country. The pain and suffering experienced by those who lost loved ones is unimaginable. So I understand the emotions that this issue engenders. Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground.

"But let me be clear: as a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country. That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are."

It's the first time the president has commented on the proposed mosque and cultural center, which has sparked a national debate. Previously, the White House had said it was a local issue.

Leading Republicans, including Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, oppose building the mosque near the spot where the World Trade Center once stood.

After Obama made his remarks, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who supports the proposed mosque and cultural center, issued a statement invoking a famous letter penned 220 years ago this week by President George Washington to the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island. "President Obama's words tonight evoked President Washington's own August reminder that 'all possess alike liberty,'" Bloomberg said. "As I said last week, this proposed mosque and community center in Lower Manhattan is as important a test of the separation of church and state as we may see in our lifetime, and I applaud President Obama's clarion defense of the freedom of religion tonight."