HATCH GETS IT RIGHT ON RELIGIOUS LIBERTY…. If anyone should be sympathetic to the problems facing Muslim Americans right now, it should be members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After all, in many respects, Mormons have endured similar difficulties for many years — resistance to building houses of worship, questions of whether it’s a “real” religion, etc.

It’s why, as disheartening as the anti-Muslim activism has been lately, it’s been especially disappointing to see prominent LDS members remain silent, and in many instances, even embrace intolerance.

It’s also why Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), one of the nation’s most prominent Mormons, deserves credit for stepping up and supporting a principle that isn’t popular right now. Here’s what Hatch told the Fox affiliate in Salt Lake City yesterday:

“Let’s be honest about it, in the First Amendment, religious freedom, religious expression, that really express matters to the Constitution. So, if the Muslims own that property, that private property, and they want to build a mosque there, they should have the right to do so. The only question is, are they being insensitive to those who suffered the loss of loved ones? We know there are Muslims killed on 9/11 too and we know it’s a great religion…. But as far as their right to build that mosque, they have that right.

“I just think what’s made this country great is we have religious freedom. That’s not the only thing, but it’s one of the most important things in the Constitution. […]

“There’s a question of whether it’s too close to the 9/11 area, but it’s a few blocks away, it isn’t right there…. And there’s a huge, I think, lack of support throughout the country for Islam to build that mosque there, but that should not make a difference if they decide to do it. I’d be the first to stand up for their rights.”

Good for Hatch. It’s easy to defend First Amendment principles when it’s popular; one actually has to believe in First Amendment principles to defend them when the political winds blow in the other direction.

I’d add, by the way, that Hatch is the first high-profile Republican official to offer a strong endorsement of the Park51 proposal. My suspicion is, he’s also likely the last.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.