Yesterday, New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission voted unanimously to allow construction of an Islamic center in lower Manhattan. Immediately after the vote, TV preacher Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice announced that it would file suit to block the move.

Why is an organization that purports to promote religious freedom suing to stop construction of house of worship?

It’s a good question, and the answer is simple: naked religious bigotry.

Some people are furious because this facility, called the Cordoba House, is only two blocks from Ground Zero, site of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. They have taken to calling the center the “Ground Zero Mosque.”

There are a few problems with that description. First off, it’s not a mosque. The Cordoba House (also known as “Park 51”), will contain a prayer room, but it’s mainly an Islamic center. Its backers, moderate Muslims who have condemned al Qaeda terrorists, say their intention is to build bridges of understanding and strengthen moderate forms of Islam. The facility will also contain a restaurant, retail space, a fitness center and meeting rooms.

In the United States, religious groups are free to erect meeting spaces as long as they comply with land-use laws. The Cordoba House has already done that, so what possible grounds does the ACLJ have to oppose this facility?

Grasping at any legal straw, Jay Sekulow, the attorney who runs the ACLJ, says the building at the Cordoba House site, which is slated to be razed, is historic and must be saved.

In a press release, Sekulow calls the building, which dates to the 1850s, “historic and hallowed” and claims that his group’s opposition is “not based upon fear, hostility or prejudice, but rather the unique architectural and historical characteristics of the building and the public’s interest in preserving the history of the September 11th events.”

But in fact, the public has shown little interest in preserving the building. It was severely damaged during the attack and sat empty until its purchase in 2009. The building was not especially iconic before the attack: It housed a Burlington Coat Factory store.

Yesterday, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg eloquently explained why Sekulow and his band of Muslim-bashers are wrong.

Bloomberg rightly portrayed the issue as one of separation of church and state. In America, he pointed out, the government has no authority to deny religious groups the right to meet and build facilities simply because some people don’t like those groups.

“I believe that this is an important test of the separation of church and state as we may see in our lifetimes, as important a test,” Bloomberg said. “And it is critically important that we get it right.”

Thomas Jefferson would also rebuke those who pander to the base emotions of hate, fear and rage. When his landmark Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty became law, Jefferson rejoiced that efforts to limits its protections to Christians were turned back.

The law, Jefferson enthused, would protect “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, the infidel of every denomination.”

As disturbing as this incident is, it has some value: It has, beyond all doubt, exposed Sekulow for what he has always been: a Religious Right operative who wants the government to give preferential treatment to Christianity and second-class status to nonbelievers and adherents of other faiths. He seems ready to blame all Muslims for actions of an extremist faction of that faith.

The irony is rich. Sekuow, after all, would be the first to complain if he were lumped in with fundamentalist Christian extremists who shoot abortion providers and bomb women’s clinics.

Sekulow is free to descend to the level of those so blinded by rage and hate that they would trash one of our core constitutional principles. But as he does so, he should be honest about what he his cohorts are up to: They are mocking, not upholding, America’s great tradition of religious liberty.

P.S.: The Washington Post and The New York Times have thoughtful editorials about this issue today. They deserve some of your time.