PANAMA CITY BEACH, FLA., AND NEW YORK — Standing up for the right to put a mosque near the site of the Sept. 11 attacks in New York, President Obama on Saturday warned that the country risks losing its distinct identity if it ignores basic American values such as religious freedom.
Obama spoke about the proposed mosque for the second time in two days, breaking a long silence on the controversy.
He told reporters after an event in Florida that his purpose in speaking out was to "simply let people know what I thought."
He added that "it's very important, as difficult as some of these issues are, that we stay focused on who we are as a people and what our values are about."
Explaining why Obama kept silent until this point, White House aides said he wanted to wait for the right occasion and did not wish to influence New York City officials evaluating the project.
On Aug. 3, a New York commission cleared the way for an Islamic community center to be built two blocks north of where the World Trade Center once stood. Obama made his first comments on the matter Friday night at a Ramadan celebration hosted by the White House.
In his remarks Friday, Obama referred to the trauma of the Sept. 11 attacks as unimaginable. "So I understand the emotions that this issue engenders," he said. "Ground zero is, indeed, hallowed ground." But he added that America's "commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable."
Obama was in the Florida Panhandle on Saturday for a one-day trip with his wife, daughter Sasha and dog Bo, who roamed the aisles of Air Force One during the two-hour flight from Andrews Air Force Base. Daughter Malia is away at summer camp.
In remarks to the public, Obama noted progress in efforts to clean up the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and encouraged tourists to vacation in the region as his family was doing. Later, during a round of miniature golf, Sasha carded a hole-in-one on the first hole. Her father gave her a high-five. "That's how you do it, right there!" he said.
But as much as the president tried to keep the focus on the gulf, he got questions on the mosque.
He emphasized that he was standing up for a basic principle, not endorsing the idea of putting a mosque at that specific location. But the distinction seems an academic one. At no point has Obama said it's a bad idea to put a mosque at that site even if the owners have the right to do so.
"I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there," he said. "I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That's what our country is about."
New Yorkers interviewed Saturday were divided about the mosque and the president's position.
Valerie Kowal, 63, a city worker from the Bronx, said that she doesn't share Obama's views. "Personally, I don't think we need it here," she said of the mosque.
A lifelong New Yorker, she works a couple of blocks from the World Trade Center site.
"We had to wear masks because all you smelled was fluid and death," she recalled.
The memory of that day is still fresh in her mind, which is why she opposes the center.
"I'm not a bitter person," she said. "But it's there. Personally, I don't think we need it here."
Michael Lozano, a financial planner who lives in Brooklyn, said he sees no problem with the mosque location.
"What's the difference between a mosque here and a mosque midtown?" Lozano, 42, asked. "I'm not against it."
House Republican Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio took issue with Obama's remarks. "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. "That is the essence of tolerance, peace and understanding. 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."
The Muslim Public Affairs Council put out a statement applauding Obama and New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who also has defended the proposed mosque.
"The president's made a historic speech in favor of religious freedom. He and Mayor Bloomberg have set the standard for other political leaders to preserve America's open society," said council President Salam Al-Marayati. "The president landed a major blow against Al Qaeda's false narrative that America is at war with Islam."