President Obama's support for a group's right to build an Islamic center near the site of the 9/11 attacks will "absolutely not" hurt Democrats this fall, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) said Monday.
Ellison, the first Muslim ever elected to Congress, dismissed the notion that Obama's remarks would weigh on the president's party in the fall elections.
"Absolutely not," Ellison said on ABC's "Good Morning America."
"The truth is that we're a party of principle," the second-term lawmaker added. "We believe in the idea of religious liberty."
During a meal Friday in celebration of Ramadan, Obama defended the group's right to build an Islamic center, which will include a prayer space, on the grounds of religious freedom. Religious liberty, Obama said, "includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances."
The next day, Obama appeared to take a step back, saying he was not commenting on the wisdom of building an Islamic center two blocks from the site of the Sept. 11 attacks, where thousands of Americans were killed by Islamic terrorists.
The president's decision to weigh in on the controversy has elevated the Ground Zero mosque into a national political issue, and some Republicans already have used the controversy as an election-year cudgel against their Democratic opponents. Sen. David Vitter's (R-La.) campaign, for instance, hit his Democratic opponent, Rep. Charlie Melancon, for not coming out against the proposed mosque.
"Obama’s support of building the mosque at Ground Zero is a slap in the face," Vitter wrote on Twitter. "Melancon’s silence on this is troubling."
Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.), an Independent who caucuses with Democrats, said earlier this month that developers should "put the brakes" on the proposed Islamic center.
Ellison said that stopping the building of the center would threaten religious liberty in the U.S., and associate all Muslims with the 9/11 attacks.
"[T]here's also a more important principle at work here. And that is that the transnational terrorists who committed this outrageous act on 9/11, they are arguing that America is at war with Islam," he said. "The way to undermine and counteract that false narrative is to stand on our sacredly held beliefs of religious liberty. That's how we demonstrate that, no, America is a country ... for everyone where people worship as they see fit. The problem with stopping this Islamic center is that it implies that the Muslim world is responsible for it, when it was al Qaeda that was responsible."