The second-ranking Senate Democrat broke ranks with his party's leader this weekend by announcing his support for the Lower Manhattan Islamic center and mosque.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) said Sunday that those who are opposed to the mosque are trying to divide the country with fear and hate.
Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said that the planned community center, which includes a mosque, should not be built two blocks from the site of the 9/11 terror attacks.
Durbin's split with Reid shows that top Democrats continue to take different stances on an issue that has divided the country.
Reid, who is in a tough reelection battle, stoked the political firestorm surrounding the debate. His position appeared to put him at odds with President Obama.
Obama on Aug. 13 said that he supports the rights of the facility's backers to build the center, citing religious freedom. He said a day later that he was not commenting on the "wisdom" of constructing it specifically at the planned site.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has said that New Yorkers should decide whether to let the facility be built, but also questioned the funding sources of its opponents.
The president's comments transformed the issue into a national debate and Republicans have sought to turn it into a campaign issue.
Durbin, like Obama, cited freedom of religion in supporting the mosque.
"They have also forgotten one of the most fundamental American and constitutional values: our freedom to practice our religion," he said. "As President Obama has said, 'Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country and that 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.' "
He also praised former President Bush for his stance on Muslims and their faith following the 9/11 attacks.
"I had my differences with President George W. Bush, but I believe he showed real leadership after 9/11, when, in the agony and anger that followed, he made it clear that our war was with the terrorists who perverted the teachings of Islam, not with Muslims who were faithful to what he called 'a peaceful religion, a religion that respects others,' " he said. "Those who seek to exploit the location of an Islamic center in New York have forgotten the words of President Bush."