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Sunday, August 15, 2010

Mosque divide enters Florida politics

Democratic presidential candidate Obama
Two top Democratic candidates slammed President Obama's view on plans for a mosque near ground zero.

As President Barack Obama sought to clarify his support of a mosque near ground zero in New York City, the political storm swept through Florida with two top Democratic candidates criticizing the plans as insensitive.

Gov. Charlie Crist, meanwhile, said he agreed with the president's view about religious freedom.

``I know there are sensitivities and I understand them,'' he said after meeting with Obama in Panama City about the oil disaster. ``This is a place where you're supposed to be able to practice your religion without the government telling you you can't.''

Crist is running for U.S. Senate as an independent, having left the Republican Party, and his views could appeal to Democrats.

But some Democrats in Florida were sharply critical of Obama. ``President Obama has this all wrong,'' said Jeff Greene, who is running for U.S. Senate. ``Freedom of religion might provide the right to build the mosque in the shadow of ground zero, but common sense and respect for those who lost their lives and loved ones gives sensible reason to build the mosque someplace else.''

The mosque would be part of a $100 million Islamic community center two blocks from where nearly 3,000 people perished when hijacked jetliners slammed into the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001.

In Panama City, Obama expanded on a Friday night White House speech that asserted that Muslims have the same right to freedom of religion as everyone else in America. ``I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making a decision to put a mosque there,'' he said. ``I was commenting very specifically on the right that people have that dates back to our founding.''

Until Friday, the White House had said that it did not want to get involved in local decision-making. His attempt to clarify his remarks did not keep the controversy from swelling.

Alex Sink, Florida's CFO and Democratic candidate for governor: ``It is my personal opinion that the wishes of the 9/11 victims' families and friends must be respected. They are opposed to this project and I share their view.''

Rick Scott, one of the Republicans in the gubernatorial race, was the first to criticize Obama, calling his stance ``shameful and the act of a cowardly politician.''

Scott's GOP rival, Attorney General Bill McCollum, said, ``It is simply symbolically wrong at a time when we're at war.''

In the Senate race, Republican Marco Rubio said, ``It is divisive and disrespectful to build a mosque next to the site where 3,000 innocent people were murdered at the hands of Islamic extremism. I strongly disagree with President Obama and Charlie Crist.''

U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, the other leading Democrat in the race, issued a statement reflective of the sensitive nature of the debate. ``Our nation was founded on the pillar of religious freedom and construction of the mosque should not be denied on religious grounds,'' Meek said, ``but this is ultimately a decision for the local community in New York City to make.''

This report was supplemented with material from The Associated Press. Times/Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed.