Atheist group’s frivolous lawsuit aims to bar ‘cross’ from 9/11 museum

CHIP EAST REUTERS The World Trade Center Cross, made of intersecting steel beams found in the rubble of buildings destroyed … Continued



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.

Susan Jacoby
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  • JimTrott

    Don’t think for a moment that this “symbol” is not intended by the Christian Right dominion religionists to evoke notions of miraculous supremacy of the Biblical deities. Listen to Pat Robertson litigating operatives, Jay and Jordan Sekulow, as they repeatedly attempt to mythologize that the cross “rose up from the rubble”.

    If that icon were to be placed in the museum, it would have an enormous overwhelming presence over any other artifact. A solution would be to make a small replica or photograph for the museum and move the “sacred” cross to a religious facility where it would be more appropriately displayed and maintained with non-government funds.

    Jesus had no more or less involvement with that tragedy than the god of the Jews, or the Mormons, or Catholics, or Muslims, et al. One faith has no more efficacy than another.

    To assert otherwise in a government sponsored setting is rude, at best, and essentially un-American.

    E pluribus unum.

  • davivman

    While Susan’s legal understanding of the Establisment Clause is generally inaccurate, at least she doesn’t seem to buy into the rediculous notion that the Constitution somehow prohibits any entity that is even loosly associated with the government from mentioning a particular religion.

  • CarlosPi

    OK, well in that case the question is:

    Is this an exhibition put together with public money? Was this “object” found as is, or sawn, put together, put on a pedestal or otherwise tampered with to make it a Christian cross?

    I think it is a lot more disingenuous to deny the evidence than to speak in the name of an offense no one has the right *not* to feel.

    The argument stands: if a cross, why not any other religious symbol too?

    Where it is ultimately displayed is quite obviously completely beside the point.

  • kelevraa

    Jacoby really needs to brush up on her history. “Our once-cherished separation of church and state”… when was that exactly? When has Christianity NOT been the forefront religion of American government and law making? The separation of church and state was a lot like “all men are created equal” when those words were written. All men were created equal… if you weren’t a slave. And there was separation of chuch and state… if you weren’t a christian chruch.

    Not that I totally disagree with this article… it does seem a little sensationalist. But the closing statement is bogus, and trying to elicit emotions in people with a deceptive angle. Because the separation of (Christian) chruch and state has NEVER been cherished and it can’t be devoured because it doesn’t exist.

    The thankless people are trying to abolish this behavior, much like we (America) abolished slavery. They are trying to make progress… not achieve some prior (and worse) state of affairs.

  • greggorywood

    It’s not offensive to have the ‘cross’ there: it’s just plainly stupid.
    What historical significance does this one piece of metal have to the destruction and murder of 9/11? If Christians want to have hope in the omnipotent Jesus, then why was the mass murder of thousands not prevented by the resurrected Nazerene? How ‘holy’ were the Twin Towers on 9/10? Those who atomized thousands on that horrible September morning were the most devout and religious. Hitchens is right: religion poisons everything; including the memory of 9/11.

  • Secular1

    The law suit in my view is a preemptive strike against the RCC and the religious rightwing nutjobs from expropriating a prominent place for that piece of metal as religious symbol. How many times have we not seen this kind of stupid, moronic claims made of some piece of religious symbol surviving intact in a natural catastrophy. Then all the charlatans, using it as a some kind of affirmation of their delusionary beliefs, to further dupe the gullible. This will prevent the such charlatans to pull off such tricks at taxpayer’s cost. We need to take a page out of tea party crowd in framing the debate. I don’t mean we should hold the gun to every ones head but we need take the fight when there is justification to do so. Force them to compromise and preempt them from establishing unnecessary fact on the ground and or precedents. With that objective I feel that this group is providing an invaluable service, to the secular cause

  • James210

    Tactical Entry at Wacko?
    No, thankyou.
    I-ll stick with ethics and truth over somebody elses lies?

    Ms Jacoby,
    i sympathize with the position of New Yorkers with regards to the “violation” of their sovereignty, however, it must also be noted that residents of other “States” also suffered on 9/11. We must be inclusive in the healing process and sacrifices of divisive policy’s, that led us to 9/11?
    I’m tired of war, and personally don’t mind islamic , jew or/and christian-(there are so many) representations at any site dedicated to peace.

    If i may ask, if that cross-beam was tappered back to reflect/refract the negative/resistive energy of christianity, would that be acceptable to the atheist coalition?
    I-Clearly a hypothetical.
    That was a long day for my family as well Ms Jacoby?

  • Rongoklunk

    The fact that God didn’t lift a finger to prevent 9/11 happening should give pause to those who figure he actually exists. He didn’t get involved in the Asian tsunami that killed an estimated 200,000 men, women, and children about eight years ago, and wasn’t around for the recent Japanese earthquake and following tsunami.
    The reality is – he’s never around – disaster or no disaster. In all of his existence he has never ever been known to be anywhere at all. How strange. It’s exactly as if he doesn’t exist. But if he does exist he’s either not interested in earthlings, or is simply not powerful enough to do anything miraculous to prevent catastrophes or in any way make a difference. He never has in the past, and never will in the future.

    We will never read the headline “God Prevents Terrorist Attack”, or “God Intervenes To Crush Certain Tsunami Before It Strikes California”, or “God Strikes Again To Divert Tornado”. It ain’t ever going to happen, because they there is no god.

  • backspace1

    Rongoklunks prices aren’t posted, vampire visit?

    can you read Palms down, blood lines? That’s big money…

  • ThomasBaum

    If our free will was only free up to a point, what would that make us?

    Puppets on a string.

  • ThomasBaum

    When you meet God, ask God if God Is.

  • nude0007

    It was chosen for display because it is a religious symbol. People will attach an undue transcendental importance to it, like the faces of jesus in sandwiches. As such it is not a “message of hope”, but a false icon that god was at work at ground zero. If they want to put a piece of twisted metal on display, then find one that isn’t shaped like a cross. It reduces the significance of the disaster from an attack on the US to an attack on christianity. The messafge is undeniable, the people wanting this are religiously motivated, and want to inflict their symbols on every site and event. I don’t think they should be allowed to. It is definitely a religious based attempt to assert their god’s claims on America.

  • larryclyons

    What the religious fanatics seem to forget is that not everyone who died in the Twin Towers on 9/11 were Christian. By forcing a Christian religious symbol to be placed, it is an insult to the memory of those people who were not Christian.

  • TexLex

    I’m about as secular a humanist as you’re likely to find, but agree that this cross, if incorporated as one of the displays and with a suitable explanation that it was found in the wreckage and that many Christians have found it to be deeply affecting, wouldn’t be out of place. Ditto other bits of found art, if there are any, that might have significance for other religions.

  • smitisan

    Heavy sigh. All this fuss is why I’m an agnostic. I at least know what I don’t know, but the militant atheist’s faith in reason leaves me cold. I see no evidence for the assumption that we live in a rational world, and even less for supposing people can act rationally. Gotta love ’em.

  • ThomasBaum

    humanist: a student of human nature or affairs.

    You said, ” it was found in the wreckage and that many Christians have found it to be deeply affecting, wouldn’t be out of place.”

    It can be enlightening for “someone” if they can rise above themself and look at their fellow human being as someone that might have different beliefs but that they are entitled to their beliefs just as the “someone” can have theirs.

    I have talked to atheists on here that are not so self-absorbed as to have a superior attitude about themself.

    These self-absorbed superior attitude atheists seem to be the other side of the same coin as some theists that have an identical self-aborbed superior attitude.

    Just as many “Christians” give Christianity a bad name, many atheists give atheism a bad name.

    As I have said many times, The True, Living, Triune, Triumphant God is a searcher of hearts and minds, not of religious affiliations or lack thereof.

  • mrbradwii

    We should probably ban the letter “t” as well, as it has many cross-like qualities… not to mention the venerable +1 symbol to indicate your Like-i-ness.

    And we shouldn’t subsidize the house of the pope or any other purported social institutions raised to the bleeding teat of the American checkbook by fatuous religious leaders of any stripe. It’s a travesty that tax dollars have been laundered back to terrorists.