This Week in God

THIS WEEK IN GOD…. First up from the God Machine this week is a look at the ongoing efforts among political conservatives to oppose construction of the Cordoba House in lower Manhattan, most notably the efforts of a right-wing legal group called the American Center for Law and Justice.

If you’re unfamiliar with the ACLJ, it was created by radical TV preacher Pat Robertson to operate as the opposite of the ACLU. And this week, the ACLJ, which claims to be committed to religious liberty, filed suit to prevent the construction of a religious community center. To rationalize their efforts, the group’s lawyers said they’re not bigots, they’re just worried about the historic significance of the building — which used to house a Burlington Coat Factory store.

As John Cook reported this week, the ACLJ and its cohorts “have a history of arguing in court that local governments can’t use laws like that to prevent houses of worship from being built.”

The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), the legal advocacy group leading the charge, has argued repeatedly and forcefully in federal court on at least three occasions that local land-use laws like historical landmark designations don’t trump the religious and property rights of religious groups to build houses of worship. So has the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which controversially came out in opposition to the mosque last week. The group has filed no less than five amicus briefs in federal court arguing that local governments can’t use zoning laws to prevent the building of churches and synagogues.

Indeed, these groups all compose part of a large ecosystem of religious rights organizations; members of such groups have made frequent use of a federal law that erects significant barriers for local governments seeking to interfere with religious buildings. With few exceptions, in the case of Cordoba House, these groups have either been silent or directly contradicted their own history of statements and action.

Congress passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) in 2000 at the urging of religious rights groups. The law creates strong protections for churches and other houses of worship from local governments using zoning and other land-use laws to restrict them, essentially saying that if local municipalities interfere with religious institutions, they’d better have a very good reason for doing it.

So far, the bigots and their boosters can’t think of a good reason, and “We think Muslims are bad” isn’t exactly a compelling argument in court.

More to the point, in the case of the ACLJ, what if a Christian group were trying to build a facility at this exact same location? Would the group be rushing to court to block its construction out of concern for the historic significance of the building? This week, an ACLJ official admitted the group would not.

It’s about bigotry, plain and simple. The right is barely trying to hide it.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* Leading religious right groups are organizing to support the extension of Bush’s tax cuts. It’s as if the groups asked “What would Jesus do?” and decided to do the opposite.

* Terrorists attacked the Pentagon on 9/11, and yet Muslims have been allowed to pray — not two blocks away — but in the actual building. Will Gingrich, Palin, and Giuliani let this stand?

* And fascinating new research shows that members of the clergy “suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.” (thanks to reader D.J. for the tip)