Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson said on Sunday that Muslims are unfit to be president of the United States, arguing their faith is inconsistent with American principles.
"I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that," Carson told NBC's "Meet the Press."
The remarks by Carson, who is near the top of opinion polls for the crowded field of Republican candidates, followed a controversy that erupted when front-runner Donald Trump declined to challenge a man during a campaign event who incorrectly called President Barack Obama a Muslim and said Muslims are "a problem in this country."
Carson, a Christian who says he got the idea for his tax proposals from the Bible, said he thought a U.S. president's faith should be "consistent with the Constitution."
Asked if he thought Islam met this bar, the retired neurosurgeon said, "No, I do not."
He did not specify in what way Islam runs counter to constitutional principles.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, America's largest Muslim civil rights group, condemned Carson for his statement, which it said should disqualify him from the presidential contest because the U.S. Constitution forbids religious tests for holding public office.
"To me, this really means he is not qualified to be president of the United States," said the group's spokesman, Ibrahim Hooper. "You cannot hold these kinds of views and at the same time say you will represent all Americans, of all faiths and backgrounds."
Carson, however, made a distinction when it came to electing Muslims to Congress, saying that it is a "different story" from the presidency and that it "depends on who that Muslim is and what their policies are, just as it depends on what anybody else says."
Congress has two Muslim members, Democratic Reps. Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Andre Carson of Indiana.
"If there's somebody who's of any faith but they say things and their life has been consistent with things that will elevate this nation and make it possible for everybody to succeed and bring peace and harmony, then I'm with them," Carson said.
Ellison responded to Carson’s comments, saying in a statement, "It’s unimaginable that the leading GOP presidential candidates are resorting to fearmongering to benefit their campaigns." He added, "every American should be disturbed that these national figures are engaging in and tolerating blatant acts of religious bigotry."
As reaction to Carson's remarks grew Sunday, his campaign spokesman Doug Watts, said the candidate would likely reach out to the Muslim community.
Watts added that the interview on "Meet the Press," in which Carson also said he would not support a Muslim as president, should be "watched or read carefully."
"He did not say that a Muslim should be prevented from running or barred from running in any way," said Watts, according to NBC News. He said the people would ultimately decide, saying, "[Carson] just doesn't believe the American people are ready for that."
Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders denounced Carson’s remarks. "You know, this is the year 2015," he said, according to The Washington Post. "You judge candidates for president not on their religion, not on the color of their skin but on their ideas on what they stand for."
Carson had been rising in polls, although he gave up some ground in a CNN/ORC poll released on Sunday, slipping from second to third place, with 14 percent support. Sixteen Republicans are seeking the party's nomination for the presidency in November 2016. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina surged into second place, with 15 percent support, just above Carson.
Carson's comments drew scorn from South Carolina’s Sen. Lindsey Graham, another GOP presidential candidate. "I think Dr. Carson needs to apologize," Graham said, adding the comments were particularly offensive to U.S. service members who are Muslim.
But other Republican presidential hopefuls were less forceful in their responses, perhaps aware that a Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll conducted in January in Iowa, the first state to vote in the nominating contest, showed 39 percent of Republicans saw Islam as inherently violent. Thirteen percent of Democrats held that view.
In a separate appearance on NBC, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, was asked whether he would have a problem with a Muslim in the White House. He replied, "For me, the most important thing about being president is you have leadership skills, you know what you're doing and you can help fix this country and raise this country. Those are the qualifications that matter to me."
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who taped Sunday an episode of "Iowa Press," an Iowa Public Television program, was asked if he agreed with Carson's statements. "The Constitution specifies that there shall be no religious test for public office, and I am a constitutionalist," Cruz said.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, told CBS' "Face the Nation" that a president's religion should not matter but that he understood the rise of anti-Islamic sentiment because "we were attacked by people who were all Muslim."
Trump — who was a driver of the birther movement, which claimed Obama wasn't born in the U.S. — was asked on NBC's "Meet the Press" if he would accept a Muslim president. He replied, "Some people have said it already happened."
In multiple interviews Sunday, Trump tried to draw a distinction between all American Muslims and radical Muslims in the U.S. and elsewhere. "I have friends that are Muslims. They're great people, amazing people," he said on CNN's "State of the Union."
"You have extremists Muslims that are in a class by themselves," he added. "It's a problem in this country. It's a problem throughout this world … You do have a problem with radical Muslims."