Attempts to eradicate religious symbols from the public square were in full force last week as a group of New York City atheists filed a lawsuit demanding that a building fragment known as the World Trade Center cross be removed from the 9/11 Museum and Memorial at Ground Zero.
American Atheists, Inc., claims that the cross, which was moved to a permanent position at the 9/11 tribute last week, is not only “offensive and repugnant” to non-believers but an apparent source of physical discomfort to atheists.
Two days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, rescue workers noticed a set of steel girders in the shape of a cross upright in the Twin Towers’ rubble. They salvaged the 20-foot tall object, later telling a local friar that the girders became “a sign that God never abandoned us at Ground Zero.”
In the long days and months of rescue and clean up following 9/11, rescue workers, families of victims, and mourners visited the impromptu memorial, saying prayers for loved ones and leaving mementos of the fallen. Friar Brian Jordan explained further, “We interpreted it as a cross because we were in desperate need for some type of consolation, of support and comfort, which this cross provided.”
However, what became a symbol of remembrance and consolation for many in the aftermath of the September 11 horrors is now a supposed source of indigestion and nausea to others. In their lawsuit filed last week demanding removal of the cross from the publicly funded 9/11 Memorial and Museum, American Atheists listed “dyspepsia,” “headaches,” and “mental anguish” as physical injuries allegedly suffered by non-believers at the mere thought of the cross being included in a permanent display.
Perhaps noting other litigants’ recent difficulties in gaining legal standing, American Atheists is suing partially on the grounds that cognizable, physical injury results from viewing a publicly displayed religious symbol. One spokeswoman said that to her, the cross was nothing but an “ugly piece of wreckage that does not represent anything…but horror and death.”
The cross, like many other artifacts (including religious symbols connected to the attack and its victims) that will be housed beside it in the city’s 9/11 museum, stands as a historical remembrance of one way people expressed grief and found solace at the site of the terrorist attacks. In a radio address this week, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg likewise defended inclusion of the cross in the museum: “This clearly influenced people. It gave them strength. In a museum you want to show things that impacted people’s behavior back then, even if you don’t think it was right. It’s history. Museums are for history.”
To heed the demands of secularists, however, would require the government to refuse the inclusion of a significant piece of history simply because it also has religious connotations. Recognition of the role of the cross in these events does not amount to a state endorsement of Christianity. Such attempts to whitewash any mention of religious beliefs from the public square distort the design of American religious freedom and misconstrue the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of—not from—religion. As Heritage’s Jennifer Marshall explains about the American model of religious freedom:
Far from privatizing religion, it assumes that religious believers and institutions will take active roles in society.… In fact, the American Founders considered religious engagement in shaping the public morality essential to ordered liberty and the success of their experiment in self-government.
The American Atheists’ suit comes on the heels of threatened legal action by atheists who are offended by a Brooklyn street sign that was ceremonially renamed “Seven in Heaven Way,” honoring the memory of seven firefighters who died rescuing others on September 11. Kenneth Bronstein of the New York City Atheists, a plaintiff in the World Trade Center cross case, claims that the religious connotation of the word heaven in a public street sign is greatly “offensive.” However, misplaced hurt feelings—like sensitive stomachs—are unlikely to amount to a serious constitutional argument.