NEW YORK, NY — JULY 23: (This Image was made with a panoramic film camera and scanned into a digital file) Father Brian Jordan (L) and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (C) look on during a blessing of the World Trade Center cross before it was moved into its permanent home at the 9/11 Memorial Museum on July 23, 2011 in New York City. The cross is an intersecting steel beam discovered in the World Trade Center rubble which served as a symbol of spiritual recovery in the aftermath of 9/11. (Mario Tama — GETTY IMAGES)
David Silverman is president of American Atheists.
On September 11, 2001, religious terrorists murdered almost 3,000 people including Christians, atheists, Jews, Hindus, Muslims and many others from different faiths.
In New York City, the Twin Towers were constructed with steel crossbeams, and after the towers fell, thousands of the beams were seen in the rubble. One Christian rescue worker selected a crossbeam and attached religious symbolism to it. He suggested that this specific crossbeam was not scrap metal like all the others, but was a sign from heaven, “a promise from God that he is with us even in the face of terrible evil and untold suffering.”
The decorated crossbeam was seized by Father Brian Jordan, a Roman Catholic Franciscan priest, and a religious relic was invented. During the next 10 years, the 17-foot cross was moved, repaired, mounted and copied. Religious services were held in front of it at St. Paul’s Chapel. Worshippers further modified it, carving “JESUS” on the top and etching prayers on the side. The cross was labeled unique, a sign from the Christian god, not merely a crossbeam plucked from the rubble of a terrorist attack. Then the cross became profitable –purchasable through church gift shops and Web sites.
The cross was installed in the World Trade Center (WTC) Memorial in a religious ceremony in 2011 led by Father Jordan. He then consecrated the public land on which the memorial is built, and the cross was lowered in. That same year, American Atheists sued for the removal of the cross as a religious symbol or for the WTC board to approve an atheist memorial alongside to remember the nonbelievers who died on 9/11.
On March 29, 2013, Judge Deborah Batts ruled that the cross is a secular “artifact,” not an unconstitutional religious symbol. The cross is an artifact, yes, but only because it is a religious symbol. In fact, the very reason the cross has any meaning to anyone is because it is a religious symbol. Absent its religious meaning, the cross is scrap metal like all the other crossbeams in the wreckage. This undeniable fact makes the cross a religious—and only a religious—item.
Because the cross is undeniably Christian, its inclusion in the taxpayer-subsidized WTC Memorial is an unconstitutional government endorsement of Christianity. The First Amendment, our most fundamental statement of rights, is clear that our government shall not show preference to one religion over any other belief system; it must remain neutral. Violating this most basic principle is not only against the law, it’s un-American. The WTC Memorial must be a welcoming place for people of all religions—or preference no religion—and we do no service toward that end by allowing a huge Christian symbol to cast its shadow over the whole of the memorial.
The WTC board justified its inclusion of the cross by maintaining that it is a secular “artifact,” but the board’s actions concede the point. The board endorsed a religious ceremony to celebrate the cross’ induction into the memorial. None of the other hundreds of artifacts received this religious treatment, of course, because they are truly secular artifacts of a tragedy. During the religious ceremony, Father Jordan stated that the cross represented “all people of faith”—an obvious effort to create a Christian monopoly in the memorial by lumping all religions under the cross. It didn’t work. Shortly after installing the cross, the WTC board okayed the inclusion of a small Star of David in the memorial as well. This object is not an artifact from the WTC site at all, but was approved for inclusion because some Jews protested being represented by a Christian symbol.
If the board members are going to install a Christian memorial, they should not say it’s not Christian. Rather, they should admit it’s religious, just as clearly as the Star of David is. In compliance with federal law, they should include equal representation for the atheists who died in the religious attacks on 9/11.
American Atheists has offered, on multiple occasions, to pay for an atheist memorial, to allow the WTC board to approve a design, and even to simply dedicate an existing exhibit to the nonreligious victims but the board turned American Atheists down on every request. Our group has been called un-American and insensitive for making the requests. Apparently, American Atheists is somehow unpatriotic for demanding equal treatment in a memorial dedicated to those we lost in a religiously-inspired terrorist attack.
Equality is an all-or-nothing concept. We all have equal rights, and America’s atheists are not being treated equally at the WTC Memorial. If the WTC board members insist on bringing in religious symbols, they must include symbols for everyone who wishes to be included. They can keep the cross, but atheists will not be ignored just because some people at the WTC Memorial are prejudiced against nonbelievers. Atheists will have an equal place, or it all must go. That’s fair, that’s legal, that’s religious neutrality—that’s the American way.
9/11 was an American tragedy, not an opportunity for preachers to capitalize on catastrophe. The WTC board’s attempt to justify inequality by insisting that a 17-foot cross in the memorial is “secular” and would not be seen as a religious statement is an insult to the intelligence of every American. Of course the cross is religious. Of course it’s illegal to place it on public land that uses taxpayer money. Of course this is a blatant attempt to Christianize 9/11.
Of course American Atheists has appealed.
United we stand.