Why court rejected atheists' lawsuit against cross at ground zero

Displaying the large steel cross pulled from the rubble of the World Trade Center did not promote religion, the court ruled. This cross is also 'an inclusive symbol for any persons seeking hope and comfort in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.'

Melanie Stetson Freeman / The Christian Science Monitor / File
Iron girders form a cross in the pit that was the World Trade Center towers, Sept. 5, 2003.

A federal appeals court in New York has rejected a challenge by an atheist group opposed to displaying a large steel cross in the museum at ground zero of the 2001 World Trade Center terror attacks.

The 17-foot column and cross-beam was recovered from the rubble of the former World Trade Center and placed in a position of prominence as a symbol of hope, faith, and healing for rescue workers and others.

Later, a decision was made to include the cross at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum.

Lawyers for the group American Atheists filed a lawsuit charging that showing the cross in a public museum would promote religion over nonreligion and violate the Constitution’s separation of church and state.

In a decision announced on Monday, a three-judge panel of the Second US Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the atheists’ lawsuit, ruling that displaying what became known as the Cross at Ground Zero in the museum did not violate the Establishment Clause.

“The Establishment Clause is not properly construed to command that government accounts of history be devoid of religious references,” Judge Reena Raggi wrote for the court.

“Nor is a permissible secular purpose transformed into an impermissible religious one because the government makes an historical point with an artifact whose historical significance derives, in whole or in part, from its religious symbolism,” she said.

Two days after the Sept. 11 attacks, as rescue workers continued the grim job of sorting through the smoldering rubble to recover human remains, construction worker Frank Silecchia came across a piece of wreckage that resembled a Latin cross.

“Taking hope from what he perceived to be a religious symbol, Mr. Silecchia brought the column and cross beam to the attention of other rescue workers, many of whom shared his reaction,” the judge wrote.

Eventually the 17-foot cross was erected on a platform at the edge of the recovery site. A Franciscan priest working on the site to bless recovered human remains, also blessed the cross and later conducted religious services there.     

“The Cross at Ground Zero came to be viewed not simply as a Christian symbol, but also as a symbol of hope and healing for all persons,” Judge Raggi said.

An accompanying inscription at the museum quotes former New York Commissioner of Emergency Management, Richard Sheirer, on the significance of the Cross at Ground Zero:

“It didn’t matter what religion you were, what faith you believed in… It was life, it was survival, it was the future.… I would say that it represents the human spirit. That it represents good over evil. That it represents how people will care for each other at the worst moment in their life. How people can put aside their differences for the greater good.”

In filing their lawsuit against inclusion of the cross in the museum, the atheist group acknowledged that the column and crossbeam were a genuine historical artifact representing recovery and healing after Sept. 11.

But they also argued that the actual purpose of displaying the cross in the museum was to promote religion, since it had become “a tangible illustration of the role faith played for many persons in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks,” the judge said.

That court rejected that reasoning, she said.

“A reasonable observer would understand that The Cross at Ground Zero, while having religious significance to many, was also an inclusive symbol for any persons seeking hope and comfort in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks,” Raggi said.

“Such an observer would not understand the effect … to be the divisive one of promoting religion over nonreligion,” she added.

The case was American Atheists v. Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (13-1668).

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