Protesters in my hometown of Murfreesboro, TN plan to march to demonstrate their opposition to the building of a local Islamic community center. Although I disagree with them completely, I am heartened by the fact that the Constitution we share protects their right to make their opinions known. Freedom of speech is a cornerstone of our Republic.
But even it is preceded in the Bill of Rights by another right our forefather's deemed essential: the free exercise of religion. At a time of war, when men and women sworn to defend our Constitution are risking their lives, we cannot forget that these rights are inseparable. The Constitution is not a piecemeal promise. It, like our union, is indivisible.
This is one reason that I support the right of all people of faith in America to practice their religion, no matter what that religion may be. Unfortunately, some critics of the Islamic Center believe that Muslim-Americans aren't entitled to this Constitutional protection.
One of my opponents in the race for Congress, Lou Ann Zelenik, has declared that local Muslims are "not part of a religious movement" and has claimed that they want "to fracture the moral and political foundation of Middle Tennessee." She has offered no evidence for this claim other than the fact that they are Muslim.
Let there be no mistake: these are words of intolerance. I would be ashamed if my school age sons said them; the Republican Party should be ashamed that they came out of the mouth of their leading candidate in the Sixth District.
Fortunately, religious tolerance is not a partisan issue. Republican primary candidate Jim Tracy sponsored the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in the state Senate last year, a bill his colleague (and fellow candidate) Diane Black also supported. The law, which is now in effect, protects mosques and other religious buildings from undue government interference. These state Senators, like many like-minded leaders in Middle Tennessee, understand that Americans should be free to worship as they please.
The alternative is far worse. As Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptists' Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, has said, "the minute you allow the government to decide which religions are kosher and which are not, you are in big trouble."
The Taliban's reign of terror in Afghanistan provides one extreme example of where this path can lead. In contrast, America stands as a shining counterexample of tolerance and brotherhood.
Consider this: even on the night President Bush addressed Congress in response to the attacks of September 11, attacks perpetrated by a group of Muslim fundamentalists, he made clear that America respects the Islamic faith and that "the enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends" but rather a "radical network of terrorists."
Nearly a decade later, as our armed forces work side-by-side with Muslims to lead Afghanistan and Iraq toward stable democracies that protect religious freedom, we should not ignore the need to do the same here at home.
That's why I ask all those who march against the Islamic Center in Murfreesboro to reconsider their views. Not only is intolerance antithetical to American values, it can actually harm our cause. Our troops' mission in Afghanistan and Iraq is only made more difficult when al-Qaeda and its affiliates can use pictures of a small band of protestors in Murfreesboro to portray the entire country as bigoted. As a veteran of the Iraq war, I know how important it is to our national security that we build bridges to the Muslim community, not burn them.
And, as a veteran who has served with Muslims in the U.S. military, I cannot forget that these brave men and women risk their lives in combat to protect the very people who march on the street to deny their families a place to worship. Sadly, not all of these soldiers made it home. In Arlington National Cemetery, among the headstones engraved with Christian crosses and Stars of David, stand headstones with the crescent and star of the Islamic faith. These symbols, mixed together in rows of white stone, represent a striking memorial to the beauty of the American Republic.
These fallen heroes are one reason why I am always reminded that we must protect the Constitutional freedoms of all Americans, including the right to worship freely. I hope that the demonstrators against this mosque reconsider their views and I pray that we will find a way to move forward together again, free from the politics of fear, toward a more perfect Union.
Ben Leming, a 15-year veteran of the Marine Corps, served in Iraq and throughout the Middle East and is a Murfreesboro, TN native. He is running for the Congress in Tennessee's Sixth District. You can learn more about his campaign at www.benleming.com.