By Karina Ioffee
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A planned mosque and Muslim cultural center near the site of the September 11 attacks which has triggered national debate faced a new hurdle on Wednesday as a lawsuit was filed aiming to block the controversial project.
The lawsuit, filed on Wednesday by the American Center for Law & Justice in Washington whose mission is defending religious freedom, challenges Tuesday's decision by the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission not to grant landmark status to the 1857 Italianate building currently on the site.
"This issue has nothing to do with religious freedom," said Brett Joshpe, a lawyer for ACLJ. "Given what the (planned new) building represents, the placement of the project at that location is inappropriate and inflammatory."
Opponents of the center say it would betray the memory of victims of the September 11 attacks, carried out by the militant Muslim group al Qaeda with hijacked passenger planes.
The lawsuit says the building, which has been used in a variety of ways during its history, from manufacturing to retail stores, is "an iconic symbol" linking "the rise of American capitalism" with "our current quest to preserve our freedom." The building currently serves as a makeshift Muslim prayer center.
The project has drawn support from leaders of other religious communities in New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, founded by family members of some of those killed in the 9/11 attacks.
Legal experts said Wednesday's lawsuit was a last-ditch effort to block the Cordoba House project, which includes plans for a 13-story mosque and cultural center. The center is modeled on the YMCA and other religion-based community centers and will be built a little more than a block from Ground Zero.
The experts said there was little chance the suit would succeed because the vote against granting the building landmark status had been unanimous.
"This is a thinly-veiled attempted to stop the construction of the mosque," said Randolph McLaughlin, professor at Pace Law School in White Plains, New York.
Under New York state's civil procedural code, groups can file lawsuits challenging the findings of a governmental body, if they can show the decision was arbitrary and capricious.
That is unlikely to happen because the Landmarks Preservation Commission allowed a lengthy public comment period and a public hearing before voting on the issue, McLaughlin said. Commissioners also spent considerable time explaining why the building did not warrant preservation.
Critics had hoped to stall the project by having the building declared a landmark worthy of protection because pieces from one of the hijacked planes hit it.
In a Rasmussen poll last month, 58 percent of New Yorkers opposed the mosque. (Editing by Mark Egan and Alan Elsner)