The Ground Zero Mosque and the Greening of Faith

>On August 12--the day before President Obama first weighed in on the "Ground Zero mosque" debate, setting off a fresh wave of media coverage--the Daily Beast quietly reported that the lower-east-side Islamic community center will house the country's first LEED-certified mosque.

Oz Sultan, a spokesman for the Islamic community center--which has been recently renamed Park 51--confirmed the report. The site's "interim use will seek to be Energystar and NYSERDA certified," Sultan wrote in an email. "For the final building (once constructed) we are seeking to be LEED Platinum certified."

LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a certification matrix employed by the United States Green Building Council to determine the energy efficiency and environmental impact of both buildings and communities. Points are rewarded for a structure's environmentally-friendly features--for instance, the use of certified wood, or carbon dioxide monitoring--and LEED platinum is the highest designation that a building can earn.

With their intention to seek LEED certification, Park 51's planners join a growing cadre of religious leaders and communities dedicated to creating green spaces of worship, education, and leisure. In Chicago, a mosque has installed solar panels to heat water for 20,000 weekly worshippers to perform ablution. In Salt Lake City, the new church history library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has garnered a LEED Silver certification. And in Wilmette, Illinois, the Baha'i Visitor's Center is obtaining permits to install a cistern to collect rainwater for irrigation.

According the United States Green Building Council, only one religious institution sought to obtain LEED-certification in 2003. (Institutions self-report their data, so it is possible that LEED-certified buildings affiliated with a religious organization are not included in these figures.) By 2007, that number had grown to 19. And last year, 58 religious institutions--from a Serbian Orthodox church in California to the Campus for Jewish Life in New Jersey to a mosque in Dubai--sought LEED certification for their structures.

For the proponents of such projects, lessons derived from the Bible, Torah, Koran, and other texts illuminate the religious imperative behind the creation of energy-efficient spaces.

"As it says in the scriptures, we believe in being good stewards of the earth," Kim Farah, a spokeswoman for the Church of Latter Day Saints, wrote in an email. "Our goal is to create a place of worship that is in harmony with the environment."

And as the number and types of faiths engaged in "green" work continues to grow, religious communities of different faiths are finding common cause in the environment. Organizations such as Faith in Place, Greenfaith, and the Alliance of Religions and Conservation have sprung up around the country to coordinate environmental efforts that span religious divides.

Susan Stephenson, executive director of Interfaith Power and Light, an organization devoted to building an interfaith religious response to global warming, has said that she has seen "a sea change over the past decade of the faith community wanting to engage in a focused way."

"Interfaith exchange was not the original goal," she said, "but the chance to get to know and work with interfaith communities and see how their theologies relate to stewardship of creation" has been a "really positive, and in some ways an unexpected, outcome of this work."

Steve Myogen Stucky, a Buddhist abbot at the San Francisco Zen Center, echoed this sentiment. "When religious leaders are sharing information, distributing information, visiting each other's spaces, there's a personal relationship," he said. "When we talk, we ask: What is the basis for taking care of the environment in your religion?"