Ellison said Pawlenty's opposition to a ground zero mosque is a divisive ploy to further his presidential campaign.
The controversy over a proposed mosque near New York's ground zero memorial hit Minnesota on Friday, with Gov. Tim Pawlenty trashing the idea and Rep. Keith Ellison, the nation's first Muslim congressman, slamming the governor.
"I know he wants to be president really bad, and I know he's trying to appeal to the most extreme elements of his party to do that," Ellison said, "but I hope he doesn't want to be president so bad that he's willing to dishonor the First Amendment and our heritage of religious tolerance."
In an interview with Real Clear Politics on Friday, Pawlenty suggested it would be unpatriotic to build a mosque near the site of the 2001 terrorist attack on New York City.
"I'm strongly opposed to the idea of putting a mosque anywhere near ground zero -- I think it's inappropriate," Pawlenty said. "I believe that 3,000 of our fellow innocent citizens were killed in that area, and some ways from a patriotic standpoint, it's hallowed ground, it's sacred ground, and we should respect that. We shouldn't have images or activities that degrade or disrespect that in any way."
Ellison said Pawlenty displayed "a profound lack of understanding" about religious tolerance, and should apologize for his remarks. "It's very unseemly that a Midwestern politician would try to divide New Yorkers and Americans on the basis of religion," the Minnesota Democrat said.
The mosque, which would be built two blocks from the site of the World Trade Center attacks, has drawn the ire of conservatives such as Sarah Palin, who tweeted: "Peace-seeking Muslims, pls understand, Ground Zero mosque is UNNECESSARY provocation; it stabs hearts. Pls reject it in interest of healing."
But New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent often discussed as a possible presidential candidate, defended the mosque as a display of tolerance.
Pawlenty has been laying the groundwork for a possible presidential run in 2012, and his remarks are the latest instance where he has weighed in on a national controversy, such as the Arizona immigration law and suggestions about English-only requirements.
But Friday's statement went too far, Ellison said. "His ambition is blinding him right now," Ellison said of Pawlenty.
Pawlenty's spokesman, Alex Conant, said, "It's unfortunate that Congressman Ellison would rather question the governor's motives than debate a very serious issue."
Jeremy Herb • 202-408-2723