The wave of anti-Muslim hysteria sweeping the nation right now is deplorable. Americans of goodwill who value the Founding Fathers’ commitment to religious liberty must stand against it.

Discouraging incidents continue to mount. In lower Manhattan, protests have erupted over plans to build an Islamic community center two blocks from the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In Murfreesboro, Tenn., some local residents are trying to block construction of a mosque. In Gainesville, Fla., a radical Christian fundamentalist pastor plans to burn Qurans this Saturday.

The sad thing is, we’ve been through this before. It happened in 1838 when Missouri Gov. Lilburn Boggs issued an order demanding the expulsion or extermination of Mormons in that state. It happened in 1844 when bands of “nativist” Protestants torched Catholic churches in Philadelphia. It happened in 1941 when mobs attacked, beat and killed Jehovah’s Witnesses because they refused, on religious grounds, to salute the flag.

It’s understandable that some responsible people want to respond to the bigotry they see all around them. In Hartford, Conn., the city council has decided to ask a Muslim leader to open its meetings with a prayer from the Quran.

I’m sure this decision was born of good intentions, but it’s the wrong response. Rather than encourage government bodies to sponsor Islamic, Christian or any other type of religious service, we would do better to reaffirm our commitment to separation of church and state – the platform upon which religious liberty rests.

As AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn put it, “Now, I think no general body should start its sessions with any prayer. City council is supposed to make sure potholes get fixed and residents have the best cable service possible. They are not supposed to become pastors or religious officials in any way.”

But Lynn also pointed out that “fundamental Christian hypocrisy” of some groups demanding that meetings open with their prayers but protesting when other religious groups seek that right.

As bad as the situation is right now, it’s also a teachable moment. This is an opportunity for leaders with vision to reaffirm all that is great about America – to remind our people of the importance of diversity and stand up for equality for everyone regardless of their beliefs about religion.

The demagogues have had their say. Now it’s time for powerful voices to rebuke Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and all of those who claim to champion the values of our Constitution even as they mock them. It’s time to remind America of the core vision of the Founders and what they intended when they adopted the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. And to do this without apology -- with no “buts.”

Above all, it’s time to embrace the idea that government has no business meddling in religion. Let individuals say whatever prayer or secular reflection that is meaningful to them, with the state sponsoring none. Our leaders should remind the people that under the First Amendment, all religions must be treated equally – with no faith receiving favors or burdens.

The best way to respond to hate and bigotry is to embrace basic principles, not trash them: That religious and philosophical diversity is a good thing. That the government cares not where, how or if you worship. That complete religious liberty for all is best ensured by the separation of church and state.

The best answer to bigots is not to take away their right to speak – but to offer better speech by explaining exactly how wrong they are and why their views run counter to the spirit of freedom that animates this nation.

P.S. Muslims have been living in America since our nation began, and many of our Founders supported their rights. James Hutson, a historian at the Library of Congress, has an interesting piece on this.