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The World Trade Center Cross, made of intersecting steel beams found in the rubble of buildings destroyed in the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, is raised by a crane before being transported and lowered into an opening in the World Trade Center site below ground level where it will become part of the permanent installation exhibit in the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, in New York, July 23, 2011.
Amid the rubble of the World Trade Center after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, workers found a cross-shaped metal beam that some saw as a symbol of hope amid the ruins. While the cleanup continued, the beam was moved to a nearby Catholic church and is now slated to be housed in the permanent collection of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. But American Atheists, a New Jersey-based group with an unerring nose for for the scent of publicity, has now filed a lawsuit to bar the inclusion of the “cross,” because it is a symbol of Christianity, in the government-financed museum.
This suit not only misconstrues the First Amendment but detracts from the seriousness of the many genuine violations of the separation of church and state that have become embedded in our society. Yes, it would be a violation of the establishment clause if the battered cross-shaped object were displayed at the entrance as the museum’s official symbol. And I’d be the first to go to court to get it removed. But there is no evidence that the museum intends this piece, when the building opens, to be anything but one exhibit in a large collection that will include many other objects belonging to the history of that day and its aftermath. It is now being installed in an underground section of the future museum.
Rob Boston, senior policy analyst for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told me that “if the cross is being displayed in a museum as an artifact of the event with accompanying information about what it is and where it came from, it’s highly unlikely that a court would strike it down.”
The 9/11 museum is intended to reflect as much as possible about the varied ways in which New Yorkers responded not only on that terrible day but in the following weeks and months.
The museum will doubtless contain examples of the impromptu memorials that sprang up at ground zero and throughout Manhattan, with pictures of the dead and the missing that also contain many religious symbols. I saw many Stars of David and a few small statues of Buddha at those memorials in the weeks after the attacks. Should they be eliminated too, if there weren’t enough symbols of other faiths and secular thinking?
David Silverman, president of American Atheists, said the suit’s goal was either to have the object eliminated from the museum altogether or to provide equal representation for all religions. “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,” Silverman said. He speculated that atheists might want to install a symbol of an atom “because we’re all made of atoms.”
I have no idea whether Silverman is being deliberately obtuse or whether he really believes this nonsense. Why not make sure that the permanent collections of tax-supported museums contain a precisely equal number of paintings and pieces of sculpture so that all religious and nonreligious beliefs will have artistic parity? Let’s make sure there’s one painting of the solar system for every painting of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. No, that wouldn’t work, given that the Catholic Church enjoyed so many centuries of exclusive domain over what types of art and science were acceptable for discussion and public display.
We are talking about history, albeit quite recent history, and the fact that some firefighters and mourners seized on this piece of metal as on object of veneration does not remove it from history. The object (I keep calling it that because to me, it has no more spiritual significance than the face of Jesus that some people have discovered in a grilled cheese sandwich) is part of what New Yorkers lived through. It is not a statement of government endorsement of Christianity.
What I find dismaying about lawsuits of this kind is that they make it more difficult to focus public attention on real and serious violations of the separation of church and state. Under Presidents George W. Bush and Obama, for instance, there has been an unprecedented expansion of tax support for faith-based social spending. Religion-based charter schools are gaining unprecedented access to public money. And the hucksters of fundamentalism are having unprecedented success in inserting their religion-based version of American history into the curriculum of public schools.
The American Atheists clearly subscribe to the notion that all publicity is good as long as they spell your name right. The media largely ignore the long, thankless battle waged by many individuals and secular organizations against genuine violations of the separation of church and state. But the press will will pounce on the story of the American Atheists trying to exclude a battered, cross-shaped piece of metal from a museum precisely because such wasted gestures confirm negative stereotypes about atheists. Cry “wolf” often enough, and no one pays attention when our once-cherished separation of church and state is really being devoured.