"America treasures the relationship we have with our many Muslim friends, and we respect the vibrant faith of Islam which inspires countless individuals to lead lives of honesty, integrity, and morality."

—President George W. Bush, 2002

President Obama has offered a mild defense of the right of Muslims to construct an Islamic Center three blocks from the Ground Zero site in New York.

"In this country we treat everybody equally and in accordance with the law, regardless of race, regardless of religion," says Obama, arguing that whatever the wisdom of building a mosque in the location, the freedom to do so is based on a right prople have that dates back to our founding.

Despite the mild character of the president’s statement, it should probably be noted upfront that this does not mean that he is a "secret Muslim," or that he was "born in Indonesia" or that he is "the Manchurian candidate."

All it means is that taking a stand that most responsible officials in New York City and state have taken. As Congressman Jerry Nadler, who represents the site, notes: "Al Qaeda attacked us. Islam did not attack us."

Building the Islamic Center is "only insensitive if you view Islam as the culprit, as opposed to Al Qaeda as the culprit," explains Nadler.

That logic has not prevented Republicans from condemning the president for responding with references to the Constitution. "If the president was going to get into this, he should have been much more clear," growled Congressman Peter King, a New Yorker who can be counted on to cheapen any debate.

But King, Sarah Palin and other Republican critics of the president are just playing politics on this one.

There was nothing remarkable about what the president said. Indeed, George W. Bush, when he was serving as president, would almost certainly have done the same thing.

If anything, it could be argued that Bush would have spoken up sooner on behalf of the plan to construct a thirteen-floor Islamic Center and prayer space to help promote moderate Islam in New York, nationally and internationally.

Bush’s frequent referencing of moderate Islam and his defenses of religious tolerance were among the hallmarks—and the high points—of his presidency.

It is good that Obama has maintained the standard and the principle—even if, as the Politico noted, Republican leaders have largely abandoned former President George W. Bush’s post–September 11 rhetorical embrace of American Muslims and his insistence—always controversial inside the party—that Islam is "a religion of peace."

The current president’s statement on the prayer center plan, which has stirred immense controversy in New York and nationally—thanks to feverish campaigning by right-wing talk radio and talk TV personalities who are looking for a summer ratings boost—is welcome because he has taken the right side. But it is welcome also because it maintains a presidential tradition of speaking up on behalf of freedom of religion that began before he took office and must extend beyond his tenure.