WASHINGTON -- Sen. Harry Reid on Monday came out against building a mosque near the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on New York City, putting him in rare agreement with his election challenger and at a rare distance from President Barack Obama.
The Senate majority leader from Nevada was the highest-profile Democrat, and one of only a few, to comment on the divisive issue that pits religious equality against the sensitivities of many Americans when it comes to the Sept. 11 attacks.
Those who did speak up tended to put some space between themselves and Obama, who transformed a New York zoning matter into a national hot button after he addressed it at a Ramadan dinner Friday.
While respecting that Muslims have a First Amendment right to religious freedom, Reid "thinks this mosque should be built someplace else," spokesman Jim Manley said.
The mosque and Islamic cultural center are proposed to be built two blocks from ground zero, the site of the fallen World Trade Center towers. The 13-story Cordoba House, a $100 million center, would house a theater, sports facilities and a restaurant.
In his comments Friday to mark the Islamic holy month, Obama acknowledged ground zero "is indeed, hallowed ground" and defended the right of Muslims to practice their religion.
"And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable," he said.
The president's remarks set off a furor, attacked by Republicans and some New Yorkers as showing insensitivity to the memory of almost 3,000 people who died in the attack by Islamic extremists.
White House officials over the weekend tried to dampen the issue.
On Saturday in Florida, Obama said that while Muslims have the right to build the mosque, he was not commenting specifically whether he thought it appropriate or not.
"I can't speak to the politics of what the Republicans are doing," Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton told reporters traveling with Obama to Wisconsin on Monday.
But he said Obama "felt it was his obligation as president to address this."
Reid commented after Sharron Angle, his Republican opponent, challenged him to declare whether he stood with Obama on the issue.
Obama "has once again ignored the wishes of the American people, this time at the expense of victims of 9/11 and their families. They have said overwhelmingly that the location of this mosque is an affront to the memories of their loved ones who were murdered by Islamic extremists on 9/11," Angle said.
Mark Peplowski, a political science professor at the College of Southern Nevada, said it would have been risky for Reid to walk away without weighing in.
"I think he had to talk about it," Peplowski said. "In a political race as hyped as this one, no candidate can let a comment by the other go by without offering some rejoinder. He would have looked foolish to look like he didn't have a position."
Coming out against the mosque "was the only solid move," Peplowski said, though it put him at odds with Obama.
Among other federal lawmakers from Nevada, Democratic Rep. Dina Titus said the issue is none of her business.
"I consider it a New York issue," Titus said when asked about it during a campaign event in Henderson. "We wouldn't want some New York congressman telling us what we can build and where we can build it."
Republican Rep. Dean Heller opposes the site, as does GOP Sen. John Ensign.
"What we need to be doing at ground zero is building a community center where all people, Christians, Jews, Muslims, all religions, can come to worship and remember the lives lost in the horrific events of September 11, 2001," Ensign said.
"There is a right way and a wrong way of doing things, and building a mosque near the site of the 9/11 attacks is not right," said Mac Abrams, Heller chief of staff.
"Congressman Heller believes that out of respect to the men and women that lost their lives on that tragic day, the mosque should be located elsewhere," Abrams said.
Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., did not return phone calls seeking comment Monday.
Some Republicans, including 2008 vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, opposed the mosque, while others were trying to walk a careful line in their criticism, lest they be tagged religiously intolerant or be accused of stoking fear.
One who praised the president was Republican-turned-independent Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York.
"If we shut down -- shout down -- a mosque and community center because it is two blocks away from the site where freedom was attacked, I think it would be a sad day for America," Bloomberg told reporters Monday.
"We all know that they have the right to do it, but should they?" Palin asked on Twitter. "This is not above your pay grade."
Gingrich accused Obama of "pandering to radical Islam" and said: "Nazis don't have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington. We would never accept the Japanese putting up a sight next to Pearl Harbor. There's no reason for us to accept a mosque next to the World Trade Center."
Review-Journal writer Benjamin Spillman and The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-783-1760.