PANAMA CITY, Florida (Reuters) - President Barack Obama said on Saturday he supported the right of Muslims to build a cultural center near the site of the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York City but would not comment on the “wisdom” of such a move.
Obama’s comments came after his remarks at a White House event on Friday in which he appeared to offer his backing for the construction of a center called Cordoba House near the site known as “Ground Zero” in lower Manhattan.
Americans in both political parties, including many New Yorkers, object to the project.
Obama’s comments on Friday drew criticism from conservatives and others, and the president sought to clarify them during a trip to Florida on Saturday.
“I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making a decision to put a mosque there,” Obama told reporters while visiting the U.S. Gulf Coast.
“I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That’s what our country is about.”
On Friday, Obama said he believed Muslims had the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in the country.
“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 said.
Earlier this month a New York City agency cleared the way for the construction of Cordoba House, a 13-story building that would include meeting rooms, a prayer space, an auditorium and a swimming pool.
Many families of those killed in the attacks have mounted an emotional campaign to block it, calling the center provocative and a betrayal of the memory of the victims.
The president’s remarks put him in the middle of a divisive political debate months before November elections, which are expected to result in big losses for Obama’s Democrats and a potential power shift in Congress to opposition Republicans.
Conservative politicians such as former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, a Republican former speaker of the House of Representatives, also have called for the project to be scrapped.
A White House spokesman said Obama’s comments on Saturday were not a departure from his remarks at the dinner.
“The president is not backing off in any way from the comments he made last night,” Bill Burton told reporters in an email. “What he said last night, and reaffirmed today, is that if a church, a synagogue or a Hindu temple can be built on a site, you simply cannot deny that right to those who want to build a mosque.”
A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll showed Americans across the political spectrum opposed the project being built near the New York site.
The survey, released on Wednesday, showed nearly 70 percent of Americans opposed it, including 54 percent of Democrats, 82 percent of Republicans and 70 percent of independents.
U.S. House Republican leader John Boehner called Obama’s “endorsement” of the center’s construction near Ground Zero troubling.
“The fact that someone has the right to do something doesn’t necessarily make it the right thing to do,” Boehner said in a statement. “This is not an issue of law, whether religious freedom or local zoning. This is a basic issue of respect for a tragic moment in our history.”
Gary Bauer, president of the conservative non-profit group “American Values,” said Obama’s comments showed the president had lost touch with his fellow citizens.
“This latest decision is proof positive that the President does not understand the values and sentiments of the American people, especially while we are still at war around the world with jihadists,” Bauer said in a statement.
But Representative Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat whose district includes the Ground Zero site, commended Obama.
“Government has no business deciding whether there should or should not be a Muslim house of worship near Ground Zero,” he said.
Writing by Jeff Mason; Editing by Vicki Allen