At a dinner ceremony honoring the holiday of Ramadan, President Obama waded into the controversy over the Cordoba House project, strongly and unequivocally supporting the construction of the Islamic Center near Ground Zero in Manhattan. Not only that, he supported the proposition of allowing Muslims to build their own houses of worship anywhere in America, as part of the free exercise of religion.

Here is the key part of the statement Obama made last night at the iftar celebrating Ramadan, a White House tradition that dates back to Thomas Jefferson:

Recently, attention has been focused on the construction of mosques in certain communities – particularly in New York. Now, we must all recognize and respect the sensitivities surrounding the development of lower Manhattan. The 9/11 attacks were a deeply traumatic event for our country. The pain and suffering experienced by those who lost loved ones is unimaginable. So I understand the emotions that this issue engenders. Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground.

But let me be clear: as a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country. 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 unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are. The writ of our Founders must endure.

The Cordoba House, actively fearmongered by the right wing, has become a lightning rod for criticism across the country. In a recent poll, nearly 70% of all Americans oppose the construction of the Islamic Center, which has been falsely called a “Ground Zero mosque” (there’s a place of worship inside the Islamic Center, but it’s mainly a kind of YMCA for the Muslim community. And, it’s not on Ground Zero, but near it).

Even liberal critics of the President were impressed with his forthright stand for tolerance and religious freedom. Glenn Greenwald called it “one of the most impressive and commendable things Obama has done since being inaugurated.” Obama lines up on an issue with minority support, with no real political gain to be had. As Greenwald says, “when is the last time a President voluntarily entered an inflammatory public controversy by taking a position opposed by 70% of the public?”

The controversy over the Islamic Center is a proxy fight about multiculturalism and ethnicity generally. The connections between the Cordoba House fight and the movement to repeal birthright citizenship are obvious. These appeals to bigotry, fueled by economic anxiety and the need for a scapegoat, have no place in the American ideal, but come back time and again throughout American history. Many have risen in objection to this rank hatred; seldom has it been a President leading the way. Obama should be commended.