Keith Ellison invokes Thomas Jefferson's Koran in 9/11 mosque fight

Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, invoked the Constitution and Thomas Jefferson's Koran when asked last night by Larry King whether he was being "insensitive" by supporting an Islamic community center two blocks from Ground Zero in lower Manhattan.

"Once you have people protesting and trying to stop Americans from exercising their Constitutional rights, I think that you can't possibly back down at this point. Because the message is that churches are allowed within two blocks of 9/11," he said. "Other religious institutions are allowed there. Hey, even off-track betting establishment is allowed there. But not a mosque."

The streets surrounding the proposed community center that would fill a vacant building are thick with with bars, street vendors, tourist traps, a strip club and fast food joints -- a place that Gov. Tim Pawlenty calls hallowed ground. It's OK for guys to pay women to wave their naked backsides there, but not for Muslims to worship.

Ellison has already chided Pawlenty as a political opportunist pandering to the right wing of the Republican party.

Last night he put himself on the side of Jefferson.

"This great country afforded me the opportunity to swear that oath on Thomas Jefferson's Koran, because we are a country of religious liberty and we respect the religious diversity of this great country," Ellison said. "The fact is, constitutional rights must always take precedence over people's sensitivities."

"You know, the fact is that our constitutional rights are our best protection, because we send the signal that America's about -- is about tolerance and about religious inclusion," he added. "If we send an opposite message, basically, we allow the Anwar al- Awlakis and the Osama bin Ladens to say, see, America's at war with Islam. And that's a message that I'm absolutely against ever being sent out. I want America to stand firm on the idea of liberty and religious tolerance, as we always have."

Ellison also appeared on Democracy Now, where he praised President Barack Obama for reminding Americans about their rights:

"It's our job to protect people's rights. It's not our job to tell people where to put a synagogue or where to put a Buddhist temple or where to put a church or a mosque," Ellison said. "The President is correct. He should not be in the business of advocating the construction of a religious institution. What he should be doing is saying that everybody has a right to pursue their rights and that he is going to uphold and defend the Constitution, which means he's going to guarantee their right to do it. And that includes not creating a hostile atmosphere so that people are afraid or inhibited or chilled from exercising their rights, as politicians like Peter King and many others have done."

Here's Democracy Now video featuring Ellison and Rabbi Irwin Kula of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership:

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