NEW YORK — A city panel Tuesday cleared the way for the construction near ground zero of a mosque that has caused a political uproar over religious freedom and Sept. 11 even as opponents vowed to press their case in court.
The Landmarks Preservation Commission voted unanimously to deny landmark status to a building two blocks from the World Trade Center site that developers want to tear down and convert into an Islamic community center and mosque. The panel said the 152-year-old building isn't distinctive enough to be considered a landmark.
The decision drew praise from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who called the mosque project a key test of Americans' commitment to religious freedom.
"The World Trade Center site will forever hold a special place in our city, in our hearts," said Bloomberg, a Republican turned independent. "But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves, and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans, if we said no to a mosque in lower Manhattan."
The vote was a setback for opponents of the mosque, who say it disrespects the memory of Sept. 11 victims by locating a Muslim facility so close to where Islamic terrorists caused the death of nearly 3,000 people.
"It's caused enormous grief and enormous pain," said Pamela Goeller, an advocate for the families.
The American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative advocacy group founded by the Rev. Pat Robertson, announced it would challenge the panel's decision in state court today.
The disagreement has underscored how differently the World Trade Center site is viewed by those in New York and outside of it.
In the city, the space has returned, haltingly, to the urban grid, sprouting new office towers and train stops. But beyond New York's borders, it looms as a powerful symbol of the war on terror and the lives lost on that day.
Prominent Republicans from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich lined up against the proposal. On Friday, the Anti-Defamation League, an influential Jewish civil rights group, declared its opposition, distressing many in the interfaith community.
Former Rep. Rick Lazio, a Republican running for governor of New York, attended the commission meeting with a handful of opponents to the mosque, which is being developed by a group called the Cordoba Initiative.
"This is not about religion," Lazio said. "It's about this particular mosque called the Cordoba Mosque, it's about it being at ground zero, it's about it being spearheaded by an imam who has associated himself with radical Islamic causes and has made comments that should chill every single American, frankly."
Lazio said the group's imam, Feisal Abdul Rauf, had refused to call the Palestinian group Hamas a terrorist organization. Rauf also said in a 60 Minutes interview televised shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, that "United States policies were an accessory to the crime that happened."
The Cordoba Initiative says on its website that its goal is to foster a better relationship between the Muslim world and the West.
"We believe it will be a place where the counter-momentum against extremism will begin," the imam's wife, Daisy Khan, said last week. "We are committed to peace."
The center's board will include members of other religions, the project's backers said. There also will be a Sept. 11 memorial to the victims of the attacks, Khan said. Early plans call for a 13-story, $100 million Islamic center. Cordoba wants to transform the building into a glass tower with a swimming pool, basketball court, auditorium and culinary school besides the mosque. The center, called Park51, also would have a library, art studios and meditation rooms.
Landmarks Commissioner Stephen Byrns said the building's proximity to ground zero and the fact it was struck by airplane debris during the Sept. 11 attacks don't qualify it as a landmark.
Park51 spokesman Oz Sultan said there was no timeline for starting demolition or construction, adding the building phase was expected take 18 to 48 months.
Rosemary Cain, whose firefighter son George Cain, 35, died in the attacks, said she thinks the mosque should be built at a different location.
"I am heartbroken. We are not bigots ... I know that not all Muslims are terrorists, but all these terrorists were Muslims and I cannot forget that," she said.
Information from the Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Newsday was included in this report.