By Terri Burke and Mustafaa Carroll

The foundation of our vibrant democracy is freedom of speech. Thank goodness.

Without it, other fundamental rights would wither and die. Unfortunately, some of our neighbors seem to believe that our democracy, the right of free speech and the freedom to practice one's religion is only available to members of their group.

In this case, it is members of a fringe group called Heart of Texas, a group so devoted to American values that its members are working to secede from the union. A group so committed to the sacrosanct American ideal of freedom of expression that it wants to shut down a library.

The library in question is located in the Islamic Da'wah Center in downtown Houston. The library itself is new, but the center has been a Houston landmark for 14 years.

On Saturday, Heart of Texas organized the "Stop Islamization of Texas" protest. The group's calls to action warned of Muslim "ghettos" and bemoaned the tax dollars that were spent on Islam rather than on America's veterans.

Moreover, group members said online, "Need to blow this place up," and recommended that protesters come armed. Happily, few responded to the calls to attend.

The thing is, not one red cent of tax revenue went into building the center or its library. The center's founder (and primary funder) is none other than Hakeem Olajuwon, one of the greatest and most beloved athletes in Houston's history. We don't suppose any Heart of Texas members complained about Muslims in Houston in '94 and '95, when Olajuwon's Rockets were winning back-to-back NBA championships for Clutch City.

However, blaming the many for the acts of the few is what most people call "bigotry," and for far too long Texas' Muslims have had to bear the burden of others' ignorant bigotry.

For far too long, they've had to live under a cloud of fear and discrimination. Time and time again, they've had to listen to the media, where, via news reports or commentary, they've witnessed their political leaders speak of them as though they're unwelcome, as though they're something other than - or less than - Texans.

Muslims have called Texas home since before the Civil War. And today, almost half a million - more than any other state in the South - call Texas home.

These Muslims live, work and play alongside Texans of many faiths, including Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Jews, Baha'is, Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, Jehovah's Witnesses, Sikhs, Taoists, Unitarian Universalists, Mormons and Zoroastrians.

You might say that diversity is the foundation of what it means to be Texan. Kind of like free speech is to being American. It's the freedom of speech that allows Heart of Texas to peacefully demonstrate its views. And it also guarantees others the right to call them out or even invite them in.

We don't want to blame the many for the acts of a few. In fact, after Saturday's protest, we were delighted to see evidence all over Houston - and online - that these are the acts of a few. Studying Heart of Texas' Facebook post about protest, we were pleased to see graceful pushback.

Commenters describing themselves as Muslims as well as others responded with poise and good humor.

"Everyone that loves Tex-Mex raise a finger to the sky and say 'This Habibi!' (This is great!)" said one. Another made puns about banning "Shakira law." Yet another jibed, "Rockets fans built this. We must stop the un-American Rockets fans."

But perhaps the most poignant comment of all is one that every protester who gathered at the Islamic Da'wah Center should hear - an expression of free speech at its best, its most unifying:

"If you are going to the rally, do the brave thing and talk to a Muslim there. If you have never met a Muslim, you might be surprised that they are your doctors, teachers, students, etc. Seriously, folks. The mosque is OPEN for all. Go right now. Don't wait for the rally. Walk inside and say, 'Hello ... It's me. I was wondering after all these years. ...' "

Now that's got heart. That's Texas friendly.

Terri Burke is executive director of the ACLU of Texas, and Mustafaa Carroll is executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations' Texas chapter.

This article originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle.