By Michelle Nichols
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A New York building set to be demolished for an Islamic cultural center and mosque should be preserved as a monument of the September 11 al Qaeda attacks, opponents of the mosque project said in court Tuesday.
A lawsuit by a New York firefighter who survived the attacks in 2001 seeks to overturn a decision by the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission last August denying landmark status to the Lower Manhattan building, clearing the way for the 16-story, $150 million center.
U.S. conservatives and many New Yorkers have spoken out against the proposed center, still at least six years from completion.
Opponents of the project argue it would be insensitive to put an Islamic cultural center and mosque so close to the site of the toppled World Trade Center twin towers, considering those responsible for the September 11 attacks were Muslim militants.
The project generated intense national debate last year, even drawing in President Barack Obama, who initially made comments that seemed to endorse the cultural center, but later said he only supported the organizers' right to build it.
The American Center for Law and Justice, or ACLJ, argued during a hearing in New York Supreme Court that the site should be deemed a landmark because it was struck by the landing gear from one of the hijacked planes flown into the World Trade Center.
"That building is a monument to that day," attorney Jack Lester told the court. He and the ACLJ, founded by U.S. conservative Christian preacher Pat Robertson, are representing firefighter Tim Brown, who brought the suit.
Judge Paul Feinman raised the question as to whether that argument meant every building in the area damaged on September 11 needed to be landmarked. "No ... and that's why this case is unprecedented," Lester said.
Attorney Adam Leitman Bailey, representing building owner Soho Properties, said the reason for the legal action was the intended use of the site as an Islamic cultural center.
"If we were building a grocery store in this spot, we wouldn't be here today," Bailey told the court. "Landing gear may have fallen on the building, but you wouldn't know today because it's been repaired."
Attorney Virginia Waters, representing the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the New York City Department of Buildings, said the building was not a monument to September 11 and was not part of the World Trade Center site.
"On September 11, the planes that destroyed the World Trade Center were not aimed at the Burlington Coat Factory," Waters said, referring to the retail business that used to occupy the 1857 Italianate building on Park Place.
"Century 21 is not a monument to September 11," added Waters, referring to a discount designer department store that was also damaged in the attacks.
Feinman said he would hand down a written decision on the case within four weeks.
(Additional reporting by Basil Katz; Editing by Peter Cooney)