Park51 quietly returns to news

Were you enjoying the fact that the media had more or less dropped any coverage of the proposed Islamic Center near ground zero? Well, it's back in the news with a couple of updates. There's the rumor that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia might want to buy shuttered St. Vincent's Medical Center and move the Park 51 mosque to a new Islamic cultural center he would build on the site (story in the New York Post). And then there's the revelation that NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration helped the mosque organizers more than was publicly known. I believe the New York Daily News broke the story but it's since appeared in a variety of other New York media outlets have reported on the latest. Here's the Wall Street Journal:

The chairman of the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission allegedly wanted "political cover" before denying landmark status to a building situated on the site of the proposed Islamic community center near Ground Zero, giving critics ammunition in their legal quest to stop the project, records released Thursday showed.

The records--sought by the project's opponents and released by City Hall--show members of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration working very closely with the organizers of the project, known as Park51, to combat public opposition and navigate various governmental hurdles. One city official ghost-wrote a letter for the project's organizers.

Aides to Mr. Bloomberg, an outspoken champion of the organizers' right to build the mosque, said the slew of emails reflects the typical back-and-forth between government officials and members of the community. The project's opponents said the records show the Bloomberg administration was in cahoots with the organizers. The records, they allege, raise serious questions about the legitimacy of the Landmarks Preservation Commission's Aug. 3 vote, which paved the way for the project to rise two blocks from the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Another story reports that the city's Community Affairs Commissioner drafted a letter for Daisy Khan, wife of the proposed mosque's imam, Feisal Abdul Rauf, to send to the head of the local community board ahead of its vote on the project. The Commissioner wrote that she hoped that the letter would "get the media attention off of everyone's backs."

The story does a fine job of getting the viewpoints from the administration and its critics. But one thing I would have appreciated was some feedback from First Amendment experts. Does the administration cross a line or not? It's hard to make a judgment without some input from people who study or litigate this for a living and can help us with some perspective.

Another thing that would help is information about whether the administration has helped other groups navigate the New York City bureaucracy. This New York Post follow-up provides Mayor Bloomberg's defense of his administration's advocacy on behalf of Park51:

On the radio yesterday, Bloomberg rejected suggestions that the city's stance on the controversial project -- known as both Cordoba House and Park51 -- had been "rigged from the start."

"They asked for help. When the pope came to town, the Catholic New York Archdiocese asked for help. We did the same thing," the mayor told WOR-AM host John Gambling.

"We wrote letters for them and figured out who they should go to, 'cause they wanted to tell community boards and other churches . . . that there might be traffic and whatever."

Bloomberg also noted that the city assisted a group of Orthodox Jews in erecting a sukkah in Bryant Park and likened the efforts to official support of the business community.

It's helpful to find out what the mayor's defense of his actions is. But is anyone wondering the same thing I am? Remember this church? The one that was destroyed on September 11 when Muslim terrorists crashed planes into the World Trade Center towers, causing them to come crashing down? The one whose congregation claims they've had trouble with government entities reneging on agreements? I think the natural question is to ask Bloomberg what, specifically, he's done to help that church. The latest on St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox (picture above from its web site), for what it's worth:

The leaders of St. Nicholas Church, the small whitewashed Greek Orthodox Church destroyed by falling debris on Sept. 11, 2001, have begun legal action against the Port Authority demanding that the church be rebuilt under the terms of a deal worked out several years ago.

A claim filed against the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey by church leaders and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America on Monday accused the agency, which is overseeing Ground Zero's rebuilding, of engaging in "arrogance, bad faith and fraudulent conduct" and "shabby and unlawful treatment."

So while the reporting on this story has been fine and good, I think it could be improved by putting the advocacy on behalf of the Park 51 mosque in context of what, if anything, has been done to help the Orthodox Church that has resorted to legal action to get their project moving. And include some knowledgeable First Amendment experts with their takes on what the courts have said about such advocacy by government entities.

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