Should a fellow appointed to a federal commission created to promote religious tolerance overseas be a member of the opposition to the Cordoba House project, which has been dubbed the "Ground Zero mosque"
by its critics?
Leonard Leo, one of Washington's little-known but influential insiders, is a longtime conservative activist and a top official
of the Federalist Society, a right-wing legal outfit. During the George W. Bush administration, he was one of a quartet of conservative power brokers dubbed the Four Horseman
, who held daily conference calls to shape judicial strategies for the White House. He's also chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom
(USCIRF), an organization that is solely funded by the federal government to monitor and encourage religious freedom abroad. It is not a powerful agency; its annual budget is $4.3 million. (Leo and his fellow commissioners do not receive salaries.) But his position on the commission does afford Leo, who was appointed to the USCIRF by Bush in 2007, and his fellow commissioners perches of prominence. They release reports decrying religious repression overseas. They issue press releases. They attend conferences. They testify before Congress. On the commission's website, Leo describes
the commission's noble mission: "to advance the visibility of and serious thinking about how the United States can best address" the challenge of religious "intolerance." He notes, "In short, we are committed to ensuring" that religious freedom "extends to all corners of the globe."
But perhaps not to Lower Manhattan. As my colleague Nick Baumann and I recently reported
, Leo, when not overseeing this religious freedom commission, is a director of Liberty Central, a Tea Party-related group that is energetically opposing the Cordoba House project.
Conservative activist Virginia Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, last year launched
Liberty Central, with the aim of connecting the Tea Party movement to Washington's conservative establishment. She has declared that President Obama is guiding the country toward "tyranny," and the group's mission
, according to its website, is to "return to a government that adheres to our core Founding Principles -- limited government, personal responsibility, individual liberty, free enterprise, and national security." And Thomas recruited Leonard Leo to be a director
of her group.
This week, the Liberty Central home page is promoting as its top "take action" priority opposing the "Ground Zero Mosque." The group is mounting an electronic petition drive
against the Islamic cultural center, decrying the project as "a strategic move to slap the face of Americans." The petition mocks those who maintain this is an issue of religious tolerance. And say what you want about the Cordoba House project, it's hard to figure out the connection between this controversy and the Tea Party's call for limited government. Still, Liberty Central is beating this drum loud.
Which brings us back to the above question: Should Leo be associating with those who would deny New York Muslims the right to be build this Islamic center? After all, it's his job to press other nations to abide by religious freedoms enshrined in international human rights accords. Leo's standing as a champion of religious freedom is hardly bolstered by his support for a group fighting the Cordoba House project -- which has become the main target of anti-Islam activists (such as Pam Geller, a blogger who launched this controversy and who runs an organization called Stop Islamization of America). Certainly, Leo is entitled to an opinion on this matter. But as the head of an official U.S. agency charged with encouraging religious freedom, it would be prudent of him not to hobnob with those denouncing the project. (Two other conservative commissioners of the USCIRF -- Nina Shea and Richard Land -- are opposing
the Islamic center.)
Perhaps there's a principled argument
against the center, though I suspect much of the hullabaloo is being ginned up by conservative demagogues yearning for a wedge issue -- that is, this summer's version of "death panels." But anyone preaching religious tolerance overseas ought to err on the side of tolerance at home. By standing with Virginia Thomas' narrow crusade, Leo has undermined the credibility of his larger crusade.
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