Suing over the 9/11 Cross
In the days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, some workers and mourners at the World Trade Center site seized upon a cross-shaped steel beam found amid the rubble as a symbol of faith and hope.
For the past five years, the 17-foot-tall cross was displayed outside a nearby Catholic church. On Saturday it was moved again, to the site of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, where it is to be in the permanent collection.
But the move quickly provoked a lawsuit from American Atheists, a nonprofit group based in New Jersey. It argued that because the cross is a religious symbol of Christianity and the museum is partly government financed and is on government property, the cross’s inclusion in the museum violates the United States Constitution and state civil rights law. The lawsuit, in turn, provoked the ire of the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative public interest law firm, as well as others. . .
Marc D. Stern, who is the associate general counsel of the American Jewish Committee and has long studied church-state issues, said the lawsuit presented “an extra-difficult case.”
“It’s a significant part of the story of the reaction to the attack, and that is a secular piece of history,” he said. “It’s also very clear from the repeated blessing of the cross, and the way believers speak about the cross, that it has intense present religious meaning to many people. And both of those narratives about this cross are correct.”
Ira C. Lupu, a professor at the George Washington University Law School and an authority on faith and the law, described the lawsuit as “plausible.” The outcome, he said, could depend on how the beam was displayed when the museum opened.
“If the cross is presented in a way that ties it to the history of its discovery and the religious perception of it by some firefighters or neighbors, then the museum would be framing it as a historical artifact, rather than as a symbol deserving religious reverence,” Professor Lupu said. “I think if it were framed in that way, it could be effectively defended on the merits.”
The atheists’ lawsuit, filed on Wednesday in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, lists multiple defendants, including the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.
“The challenged cross constitutes an unlawful attempt to promote a specific religion on governmental land,” the lawsuit charged.
David Silverman, the president of American Atheists, said the suit’s goal was either the removal of the cross or what he called “equal representation.”
“They can allow every religious position to put in a symbol of equal size and stature, or they can take it all out, but they don’t get to pick and choose,” Mr. Silverman said. . .
Would installing this cross in the museum promote Christianity, or is it a matter of historic record that this cross became a symbol of hope for many Christians following the attacks on 9/11? If the lawsuit is successful, a part of history may be forgotten. Professor Lupu offers, to my mind, a most reasonable response. There are ways to display the cross which would clearly promote Christianity. There are also ways to display the cross as set within a historic context which respects the first amendment. Since this is absolutely possible, why is a lawsuit necessary? I suspect it is an attempt not merely to separate church and state, but to whitewash from American history any religious symbolism. It is to re-write history and pretend that we were as secular as secularists would like us to be today.