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Fight on Islamic Center Flares Anew as Ex-Firefighter Takes His Case to Court

By: Colin Moynihan

March 15th, 2011

The furor over an Islamic center and mosque planned near ground zero flared up again on Tuesday, as lawyers for a former New York City firefighter asked a judge to overturn the city’s decision to withhold landmark protection for the building site.

The decision last August by the Landmarks Preservation Commission removed a significant obstacle to the planned construction of a tower on Park Place, two blocks from the site of the 9/11 attack. The former firefighter, Timothy Brown, sued the city that month, saying the commission had been unfairly influenced by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who has forcefully supported the right of the site’s owner to build the center, known as Park51.

The two sides met in State Supreme Court in Manhattan on Tuesday, before a television camera and rows of news reporters — the first big square-off between the project’s supporters and foes since last fall, when the issue became a flashpoint of the election season.

In the hearing, Virginia Waters, a city lawyer representing the landmarks commission, said the notion that the mayor had influenced the panel was “a conspiracy theory made up of whole cloth.”

One of Mr. Brown’s lawyers, Jack Lester, told Justice Paul G. Feinman that the commission’s decision was “arbitrary, capricious and violated administrative precedent.” But lawyers for the city and for a management company that runs the 150-year-old building now on the Park Place site countered that the landmarks commission had followed normal procedures and asserted that Mr. Brown, who does not live near ground zero, lacked any special standing to question the decision.

Justice Feinman, who said he expected to rule on the lawsuit in the next month, signaled during the oral arguments that he was looking closely at the issue of standing, repeatedly asking the lawyers to share their thoughts.

Mr. Lester said his client’s presence at the World Trade Center on 9/11, when he joined in the rescue and recovery effort, gave him a special interest in the matter. But the judge suggested that by that logic, every police officer and firefighter who worked that day would have the right to intercede in every development project near ground zero.

Many of those who oppose Park51 object to the building of an Islamic center so close to the place where thousands of people fell victim to terrorists claiming to act in the name of Islam.

But that opposition is just one hurdle the center faces. In January, its co-founder and religious leader, the imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, was given a reduced role by the site’s owner and developer, Sharif el-Gamal, after the two clashed over several issues.

Another imam Mr. Gamal appointed to lead religious services stepped down in February after three weeks on the job. Around the same time, Mr. Gamal acknowledged that he had not raised much of the $100 million needed for the project.

At the hearing Tuesday, the debate was calm and reasoned. Mr. Lester said his client wanted only to protect the existing building, which was damaged on 9/11, and was not concerned about any future use of the site.

But afterward, facing reporters outside the courthouse, Mr. Brown called the developers “un-American.” Another lawyer representing him, Brett Joshpe, declared, “This building, which is a monument to 9/11, should not be torn down and replaced” by a mosque.

A moment later, Adam Leitman Bailey, a lawyer for Mr. Gamal, took his turn on behalf of the Islamic center.

“We’re going to protect freedom of religion and our First Amendment,” he said. “Anyone has the right to pray where they want.”


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