Judge: Atheist group takes separation of church and state too far on ‘Ground Zero Cross’

On March 28, a group of atheists in New York lost round one in their legal battle to keep the … Continued

On March 28, a group of atheists in New York lost round one in their legal battle to keep the “Ground Zero Cross” out of the National September 11 Museum in lower Manhattan.

Federal Judge Deborah Batts ruled that the object – two steel beams in the shape of a cross that survived the collapse of the World Trade Center on 9/11 – may be displayed in the memorial museum without violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. (American Atheists, Inc. v. Port Authority of NY and NJ).

The court acknowledged that many Americans see these steel beams as a symbol of religious hope and meaning.

After all, during the recovery at the site, worship services were held in front of the cross. And in 2011, when it was moved back to Ground Zero from the grounds of a nearby church where it had been temporarily housed, a priest led a ceremonial blessing of the cross.

But for First Amendment purposes, it doesn’t matter how many citizens see the cross as the Cross. What counts constitutionally is how the government uses the object.

As Judge Batts explained in her decision, a “reasonable observer” would understand that the cross is part of an historical exhibit in a memorial museum that includes hundreds of secular artifacts. In that context, viewers are highly unlikely to see the cross-shaped beams as government endorsement of Christianity.

American Atheists calls this ruling an “injustice” and vows to appeal.

At issue in this case – and in the growing number of cases challenging all religious symbols in public spaces – are two very different views of “separation of church and state.”

Judge Batts, correctly in my view, holds that the First Amendment separates church from state, but not religion from public life.

In other words, the Establishment Clause prohibits the government from setting up a religious shine at Ground Zero, but does not bar a publicly supported memorial museum from including religious objects or images that inspired recovery workers, victims’ families, and the general public.

By contrast, American Atheists advocates an “absolute separation of church and state,” which would appear to call for a society in which public spaces are entirely religion-free zones.

But “separation” taken this far is no friend of religious liberty.

For James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and other early supporters of church-state separation, authentic religious liberty requires that government remain neutral toward religion while simultaneously upholding the right of religious people and institutions to participate fully in the public square of America.

Ignoring the role of religion – in this case by excluding an artifact with religious significance from a publicly financed museum – is hardly “neutral.” On the contrary, such exclusion sends a message of government hostility to the religious.

The First Amendment does not guarantee atheists or anyone else “freedom from religion.” Frequent exposure to religious symbols and messages is inevitable in our religiously diverse society.

The First Amendment does, however, guarantee “freedom from government -imposed religion” – a core condition of liberty of conscience.

Including the “Ground Zero Cross” in the 9/11 Memorial Museum acknowledges the religious meaning of that tragic day for millions of Americans – without in any way creating a state establishment of religion.

  • Rongoklunk

    The irony is that 9/11 was an act of Faith itself.The nineteen young men responsible for this terrible slaughter were religious men who wanted to be with God. Faith itself brought this on.

    Without Faith it would never have happened. And this Faith is just as irrational as all the other Faiths. It was the most religious act I ever witnessed – performed by loonies who were persuaded that their God wanted them to do this.

    It should have taught us that religions are dangerous and are based not on truth, but on wishful thinking.

    If there was a God I’m sure we would have heard from him after 9/11. But we never hear from him do we? No matter what happens we never ever hear from this skydude. He behaves exactly as if he doesn’t exist. Why is that I wonder?

    To believe that God made the two pieces of iron make a cross suggests that God is not capable of actually communicating with us. And I second that idea. Dead Gods tell no tales, and never ever communicate with earthlings, because they have no existence. What the terrorists did was to give Faith a bad name. If we have faith, we are just as dumb as they were. Look where it got them…and they figured they were on their way to Paradise, and got no further than the World Trade Center. That’s where belief gets you. Nowhere!

  • catitu

    the 19 young men, did not follow a Christian God. The real God, Creator, Father, Judge. The cross symbolizes Christ. The son.

  • ThomasBaum


    You wrote, “If there was a God I’m sure we would have heard from him after 9/11.”

    So are you saying that your “conception” of God wasn’t heard from since you are “sure” that your “conception” of God would have been heard from in a way that you would know about?

    According to your logic and/or beliefs then, your “conception” of God is not God.

    You also wrote, “To believe that God made the two pieces of iron make a cross suggests that God is not capable of actually communicating with us. And I second that idea.”

    Is this your original belief concerning this bit of wreckage or borrowed from someone else?

    You then wrote, “That’s where belief gets you. Nowhere!”

    This is merely your opinion but from what I have read on here from at least some atheists is that non-belief gets them to be “worm food” and nothing else, is this where your non-belief leads you to?

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