President Obama will visit a U.S. mosque for the first time as president today, taking a stand for the constitutional right of religious freedom while also confronting the debate over Syrian refugees that has generated controversy during the Republican presidential campaign.
The president will travel to Baltimore, where he will privately meet with American Muslim community leaders and deliver public remarks at the Islamic Society of Baltimore.
“This is an opportunity in the eyes of the president to send a clear signal to the Muslim American community that the president of the United States is going to firmly defend your right in this country to worship God consistent with your tradition and your heritage,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said. “That is a founding principle of our democracy. It is part of what makes America the greatest country in the world, and it's unfortunate…some people might perceive our commitment to those values cheapened by cynical political tactics from some Republicans.”
Republican presidential contender Donald Trump came under fire when he proposed a temporary ban against all Muslims from entering the United States. Some GOP candidates have disavowed Trump’s proposal while others have either embraced or condoned the idea.
“The fact that this visit is taking place in the current political context is obvious to everyone,” Earnest admitted.
For years, Trump was also a vocal force behind the so-called “birther” controversy that challenged whether Obama was born in the U.S.
The mosque milestone, however, is not the first time Obama has visited one as president. In April 2009, he first visited the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, and he’s also visited mosques in Egypt in June 2009 and Indonesia in November 2010.
Over the past year, Obama has furiously crossed off items on his presidential bucket list, including traveling to South Dakota - the 50th state for him to visit - and trips last month to Omaha and Baton Rouge -- his first stops in either city as president. Many insiders believe that before leaving office, the president will visit Cuba, where he is working to normalize diplomatic relations as well as close the Guantanamo Bay prison.
ABC News' Serena Marshall contributed to this report