Court hears atheists’ challenge to Ground Zero cross

NEW YORK (RNS) Atheists are challenging plans to include a 17-foot, cross-shaped beam that became a famous symbol of Ground Zero after 9/11 in a display at the national memorial museum that is scheduled to open this spring.

A cross formed from a falling steel I-beam at the former World Trade Center towers was placed outside St. Peter's Catholic Church in lower Manhattan where the Rev. Kevin Madigan kept watch over it until its pending move to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. Photo by John Munson/The Star-Ledger

A cross formed from a fallen steel I-beam at the former World Trade Center towers was placed outside St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Lower Manhattan, where the Rev. Kevin Madigan kept watch over it until its pending move to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. Photo by John Munson/The Star-Ledger

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In arguments before the the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday (March 6), American Atheists’ lawyer Edwin Kagin said the cross should go back to St. Peter’s Catholic Church, where it spent some time on display, not in a museum built with a mix of public and private funds.

Last year, a lower court rejected a lawsuit filed in 2011by the New Jersey-based American Atheists that said the cross was an unconstitutional establishment of religion.

In his appeal, Kagin said his organization is seeking a similar object to be displayed at the museum, something like a plaque that would say “atheists died here, too.”

“We’re arguing for equal treatment in some way, whatever that might be,” Kagin said after the hearing.

Questions raised by the three-judge panel included whether similar treatment would be needed in a place like the Holocaust Museum, a museum that includes Jewish artifacts but would not be considered an endorsement of Judaism.

The beam was found by rescue workers two days after the terrorist attacks, and it is scheduled to be displayed among 1,000 artifacts in a 100,000-square-foot underground museum. Mark Alcott, a lawyer representing the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, said the artifacts all come from the days surrounding 9/11.

“The museum is a display of history,” Alcott said after the hearing. “Religion was a very important part of it, in this case.”

In his argument for American Atheists, Kagin suggested that the cross became a form of worship for many. American Atheists President David Silverman has previously called it a “working Christian shrine.”

“We’re worried about the alienation of atheists,” he said. “We’re deeply concerned this cross gives one story, and that’s for Christians.”

The judges asked whether a religious artifact in a museum would cause confusion about its current state. “Why can’t an objective observer see it as a religious artifact that was transferred to a secular environment?” Judge Reena Raggi asked.

Raggi also asked Alcott why an object couldn’t be added for atheists. “There’s no constitutional requirement the cross has to be balanced by something else,” Alcott responded. “The museum is not a proponent or opponent of religion.”

Last month, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed an amicus brief in defense of the museum’s right to display religious objects in its private exhibit and challenging American Atheists’ right to sue in the first place.

Construction worker Frank Silecchia discovered the beam In the smoldering wreckage of the World Trade Center towers. Silecchia told the Today Show that the cross comforted him, and it soon became a rallying point for first responders. “I was already working 12 hours. I was quite weary and the cross comforted me,” Silecchia said.

“I never stood here before any media and said it’s about religion,” Silecchia said. “But I say it’s about faith — the faith that was crushed on 9/11.”

A decision from the Court of Appeals could take several months.


The post Court hears atheists’ challenge to Ground Zero cross appeared first on Religion News Service.

23 Responses to “Court hears atheists’ challenge to Ground Zero cross”

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  5. jules of Holy Toledo

    OMG…it appearest that the carnage begineth once moreth…
    just when I began to hopeth that all was well within Chez Baha’i.

    Lock your chambre this night, Sir O’Gara…this looketh quite serious!

    as the Baha’i lady spoketh, “Live and let live” I say verily!

    ….observer Jules, donning his Fun Loving Chapeau…

  6. Christy Besozzi

    Regarding the comment directed at the language of some Baha’i sacred texts: are expressed in “elevated language,”* whose apparent intention is to make it hard, if not impossible, for anyone less than half-witted to comprehendeth more than a fragment thereof,”

    The spirit (i.e. the heart) of the person hearing the words is the determinant of the ability to understand the words of a Manifestation of God. Remember, the educated elite in the times of Jesus rejected Him, but mere fishermen saw the Spirit. The education of the elite Pharisees obscured their “vision” so they could not see the Messiah that they said they so yearned for.

    Perhaps trying to understand the spiritual meaning of the words, not just visually seeing the words on a screen or paper, is what you could try.

  7. Patrick O'Gara

    “Personally I find all this obsession with details agonizingly tiresome. “

    Well, Michele, we seem to be getting somewhere fairly significant here, because I agree – what is religion, ultimately, but an obsession with a lot of inconsequential and tiresome details?

    …Some of which, to be sure, are expressed in “elevated language,”* whose apparent intention is to make it hard, if not impossible, for anyone less than half-witted to comprehendeth more than a fragment thereof, but yet to be suitably impressed by a particular arcane diatribe’s solemn and portentous gibberish.

    …Such as whether God the Father possesseth a God the Grandfather or not… or what The Holy Ghost actually meaneth?
    Or am I getting all my thousands of “true Christian,” religions all bollixedeth up?


  8. Denis Eble

    Many comments earlier someone wrote that the symbol of the crucifix reminds Christians that Jesus ‘died for our sins.’ Really? Was that the mission of Jesus-to die on a cross? I don’t believe so. I believe that his mission was to reform Judaism so that it would embrace all people, not only those that followed the laws.

    I ought to stop here lest I initiate a rise in blood pressure.

  9. Michele Joseph

    The ladt line of my post was meant to be deleted.

  10. Michele Joseph

    It seems that we are talking about two very different things.
    I noticed, Patrick, that you used the correct term that describes a cross with
    the image of the Christ on it- that is – “crucifix”.
    A cross without the image of Christ is called a “cross’.
    A “cross” remaining from the destruction of a gargantuan steel-framed building is relatively unremarkable, if not predictable. The appearance of a previously non-existent crucifix would have been, for me an absolutely astounding, life-changing, psychiatric emergency.
    It seems that people can become outraged regarding the details of the artistics depictions of Jesus.
    I’ve read detailed essays that chronicle the authors’ meticulous research regarding his facial & physical appearance. The author will be passionately outraged regarding minutia.
    Jesus is usually depicted as a Caucasion, European, ectomorph.
    If there is any acknowledgement of His Jewishness, it usually casts Him as a Jew of the Ashkenazic variety, which did not appear until after the Diaspora.
    He more than likely was Sephardic.
    His images reflect the sensibilities of the artists.
    But, you know what ? So what ?
    It’s all straining at gnats. It’s completely irrelevant & superficial.
    The point of the message of Jesus is to communicate that the way to salvation
    is through the development of the attributes of love, forgiveness, compassion& humility. We are promised that through that discipline we can find salvation through personal transformation and that we can perceive a reality of eternal life.
    Personally I find all this obsession with details agonizingly tiresome.
    I wish people could just get the point.

    There are many discussions

  11. Patrick O'Gara

    As others on here are going “off topic” a teeny bit here, I will, too.

    Consider the typical crucifix.

    Christ’s loins are invariably clad in a cloth.
    Is it likely that the Romans, a notably down-to-earth crew – would be concerned at people catching sight of a punished criminal’s genitals?
    No, is the snappy answer.
    So – virtually all images of Christ* are bowdlerised by hypocrisy.
    Fine to show a man being tortured to death, not fine to show his “man parts.”
    This mealy-mouthed attitude has had a predictable effect over the centuries.
    And a thoroughly nasty one, at that.

    *I believe Donatello produced a totally naked Christ. Which is now hidden away somewhere. And I did find this:

    Interesting, eh?

  12. Michele Joseph

    My God ! A miracle !
    I agree with you.

  13. Patrick O'Gara

    Of course it’s appropriate to put this “cross” in the museum at the site.
    And if I visit the museum, I will look at it with interest, along with the other objects on display. It is a “found object.”
    It took on significance from its history, as did Kennedy’s car from 1963, or a tattered flag from the Revolution.

    What is bizarre, and baffling to me it, is what it was doing in a Catholic church until recently. Why there?
    Why not the Museum Of New York City, say?
    What had Catholicism, specifically, to do with 9/11?

  14. Michele Joseph

    I’m sure that there are differing points of view in regard to this subject, as there is with any other.
    There are those who do not like the symbol, and there are those that do.
    ( Results of the poll of this question can be found within another ToledoFavs
    article about the same question, called “Should a Cross Be Featured In The
    9/11 Museum” by Tracy Simmons.
    I’m sure that, given that there are so many that find it meaningful & comforting, I’m sure that those who do not, can find within the goodness of their heart to simply leave it be.
    Live and let live.
    Should anyone find it necessary to include things that were not ACTUALLY FOUND, which is the purpose of this museum, should it necessary to haul in additional objects, it would be necessary to provide representations of every religion we are aware of, given that among the victims were adherents of
    every religion I have ever heard of, and some that I have not.

  15. Denis Eble

    I agree with Jules. It seems quite barbaric to ‘remember’ Jesus by his means of execution. If we follow this line of thinking then John Kennedy ought to be recalled with his skull blown off, Dietrich Bonhoeffer swinging on the gallons, Marie Antoinette, headless at the guillotine and Socrates slumped with the poison bottle in his pale hand.

  16. Zappa912

    Jules–just an attempt to explain the cross as a symbol. It represents Christ dying for our sins to save us by opening the door to eternal life. All positive things. Yes, it took an act of violence which the crucifixion represents. But I believe to most of us Christians, the cross does not represent violence so much as it represents hope and a belief in eternal life. That is a positive, thus the comment by many after 9/11 that the cross at ground zero was a source of comfort not violence. Just my own interpretation. Peace to all.

    • jules of Holy Toledo

      While understanding the symbol of the cross dating back to the early Egyptians and centuries later as the most popular expression of the way Christians identify Jesus, there remains in some, wonderment as to this peculiar interest his torture, his suffering and his death..
      With 12 years of Catholic Parochial enducation, the observation of many Lenten activities, kissing the relics of the cross, seeing Gibson’s powerfull movie (The Passion) and finally going to Oberammergau, Germany to witness the Passion Play. I for one see this strange fascination with suffering, pain and death as morbid.
      In doing the Stations of the Cross, each horrific event (scourging at the pillar, the repeated falling down, the mocking, the nailing through hands and feet, the lance through the heart) seem to be the focus of who Jesus was.
      I believe Jesus to be one of the great moral teachers in history and I hope we continue to learn a great deal more from his life, than we can from his death!
      Jesus the man had a mission …in proceeding with his mission he angered the powers that be. Like many revolutionaries, Jesus paid the price….he died for HIS sins, not ours.
      I sincerely honour folks who see it differenty, I am not wishing to be disrespectful to the followers of Christ!


  17. Christy Besozzi

    I’m not a Christian, but in recalling that horrible time, I do recall media stories about the remnant girders that appeared to some as a cross. Apparently, many Christians understood it to be a symbol – perhaps of the sacrifice of Jesus and therefore, the sacrifice of these innocent victims of a criminal act of terrorism. But, this ‘cross’ was a source of comfort to many. It, thus, became a part of the historical record of the events of that period. It should be in the museum in my opinion.

    However, if not already done, perhaps a listing of the victims could be displayed in the museum that would include their religion – or lack of religion – of choice. The victims were from a variety of nationalities, ethnicities, and religions which should be recognized, too.

    The ‘cross’ reminds me of a previous article written by Jerry (?) about his finding a cross formed by the wood slats in his front door. I found a quote in my religion’s writings (the Baha’i Faith) about the symbolism of sacrifice from this very common pattern found in nature and in the creations of humans, as follows:

    “As for the symbol of the cross, appointed in former times: Know verily, that the cross form is a wonderful figure and consists of two right lines placed crosswise-one perpendicular to the other — and this figure exists in all things.

    Meditate upon these words and pay attention to the tissue in all existing substances, either plant, animal or man, and thou wilt see that they all are formed of the cross figure or two crosswise lines. Consider this intently with true meditation. Then thou wilt be taught by the Holy Ghost that it is for this reason that God hath chosen this symbol to be displayed as the token of sacrifice in all periods of ages.” (Abdu’l-Baha, Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha v3, p. 598)

    • jules of Holy Toledo

      While I’m sure that the cross probably means different things to different people.
      Sadly, for some the cross is the epitome of a symbol reflecting violence and barbarism of earlier times.
      One wonders, if the man Jesus would approve of this “trademark” being used to typify his life.
      His life of kindness, gentleness, and love certainly is not very well represented in a symbol that depicts the final few tortuous hours of his days on Earth.
      We have a choice, to either dwell upon the positive or to stay mired in negativity. Why not choose the positive?

      …observing Jules…

  18. Michele Joseph


  19. Michele Joseph

    If you Google “Artifacts of 9/11, you can see objects that were recovered from
    Ground Zero.
    They have melted shoes, coins, smashed &.melted cell phones, destroyed
    watches, and a watch in perfect condition, an immaculate set of dog dishes, bikes, the shells of burned-out- fire-fighter helmets etc. I also noticed a Star-of -David tile.
    These objects are displayed in a shrine-like museum.
    These objects have been inbued with sanctity, not because they symbolized
    any religion or belief system, but because they symbolized the Trade Center.
    It just-so happened that there remained a piece resembling a cross, which
    is not such a marvel, considering that it was a steel-framed building.
    It, also, was meaningful to many who saw it, and it was commented that it is comforting to many.
    I have also noticed the extraordinary row of windows that echo the windows of cathedrals.
    Perhaps those need to go, also ?

  20. jules of Holy Toledo

    Perhaps it’s best to let the Christians and other have it their way when it comes to honouring silly superstitions.Why rock the boat any further?

    observing Jules

  21. Zappa912

    The cross shaped beam found at ground zero does reflect an artifact found at the disaster site. The religious symbolism is secondary to what it represents as a recovered artifact among many others that will be on display at the new museum. The atheists should keep their noses out of this one, or the court should tell them so firmly and quickly.

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