The plan to build an Islamic cultural center and mosque near ground zero in New York has unleashed some of the worst religious bigotry in memory from so-called political leaders.

Newt Gingrich, desperate to revive his presidential ambitions, views the proposed mosque as part of a campaign to "destroy our civilization." Sarah Palin is whipping up sentiment against the plan by arguing it is insensitive to the families of victims of 9/11. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican candidates, who smelled opportunity in the midterm elections when President Obama spoke in favor of the mosque, have denounced the project and the imam behind it.

Exploiting anti-Muslim bias for political gain is beyond shameful. Those on the far right purport to be passionate defenders of religious freedom - apparently only as it applies to Christianity.

For them, two blocks is too close to ground zero for a mosque. Well, then, how far away is tolerable for the intolerant? Six blocks? Ten? And don't forget to shutter the other mosques that have existed in the neighborhood surrounding the former World Trade Center site prior to the terrorist attacks.

Some 9/11 families do find the proposal to be a slap in the face. But other victims' families say it demonstrates the kind of liberty that their loved ones believed in. They cannot all be lumped into one side of the debate, with Palin as their opportunistic, self-appointed spokeswoman.

The airing of different opinions is one of the things that makes America great. But disregarding one of the founding principles of our nation would do more lasting damage to the country than the harm of offending families of those who died on 9/11.

Obama took an admirable stand when he said Muslims have a right under our Constitution to build the mosque. He could have stayed out of it at no political cost. Unfortunately, the president diluted his own convictions a day later by questioning the wisdom of the proposal. He should have covered the subject once, rather than offering belated caveats that seemed to be a cowed response to a political firestorm.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has studied the issue and has been very thoughtful in his support for allowing the mosque to be built.

The imam behind the Cordoba House project, Feisal Abdul Rauf, has said U.S. policies "were an accessory to the crime" that occurred on 9/11. But he can hardly be called an enemy of America.

The FBI featured him as a speaker at a security forum in New York in 2003, to foster better relations with the Muslim community there. The administration of George W. Bush dispatched him on speaking tours to promote tolerance in the Muslim world.

Some of the imam's views - for example, advocating "personal status" courts to decide family law issues according to religious tenets - are not acceptable to most Americans. But a nation whose Constitution promotes religious freedom doesn't have to agree with him to let him preach in Lower Manhattan.