Panama City, Florida (CNN) – President Barack Obama told CNN Saturday that in defending the right of Muslims to build a community center and mosque near ground zero in a speech Friday night, he was "not commenting on the wisdom" of the project but trying to uphold the broader principle that the government should treat "everyone equal, regardless" of religion.
"In this country, we treat everybody equally and in accordance with the law, regardless of race, regardless of religion," Obama said after giving a speech on the Gulf Coast oil disaster in Panama City, Florida.
While speaking at a White House dinner celebrating the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, Obama threw his support behind a controversial proposal to build an Islamic center and mosque near New York's ground zero, saying Friday that "Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country."
UPDATED 5:45 p.m. ET: Deputy White House Press Secretary Bill Burton released the following statement on the proposed Islamic center and mosque near New York's ground zero.
"Just to be clear, the President is not backing off in any way from the comments he made last night. It is not his role as President to pass judgment on every local project. But it is his responsibility to stand up for the Constitutional principle of religious freedom and equal treatment for all Americans.
What he said last night, and reaffirmed today, is that If a church, a synagogue or a Hindu temple can be built on a site, you simply cannot deny that right to those who want to build a Mosque.
The World Trade Center site is hallowed ground, where 3000 Americans-Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims were the victims of a cold-blooded massacre. We are still at war with the small band of terrorists who planned and executed that attack.
But that does not give government the right to deny law-abiding Americans of one faith the same rights you would accord anyone else."