Court Okays World Trade Center Cross at 9/11 Museum

The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that the cross-shaped beams found in the rubble of the World Trade Center can remain on display at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum despite objections from atheists, reports Courthouse News.

Discovered by construction worker Frank Silecchia on September 13, 2001, the 17-foot-long steel beams were immediately likened to a crucifix, and soon began to feature prominently in religious services held on the site. Five years later, the cross was moved two blocks north to Saint Peter’s Church, and in 2011 it was donated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to the World Trade Center Foundation to be added to the museum’s collection.

Currently, the beams are included in the institution’s “Finding Meaning at Ground Zero” exhibition, with a quote from Richard Sheirer, the city’s former commissioner for emergency management, describing it as a “symbol of hope, faith and healing.” According to Scheirer, “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.”

The American Atheists quickly challenged the donation, calling it a government endorsement of religion that failed to recognize rescue work done by non-Christians. Their suit was denied by US District Judge Deborah Batts in March 2013. Now, their appeal (see artnet News report) has also been rejected, with the court ruling that the cross’s presence in the museum is not in violation of the separation of church and state.

A 42-page opinion from Circuit Court Judge Reena Raggi gave the following grounds for the case’s dismissal:

No reasonable factfinder could conclude that appellees trivialize atheists’ September 11 experience when both the memorial and the museum identify every person killed in the attacks of that day without regard to religious affiliation. Further, the museum’s “Finding Meaning” exhibition respectfully reports that people employed a variety of nonreligious, as well as religious, means to cope with the September 11 attacks.

As for the challenged cross, at the same time that a textual panel reports the historical fact that people viewed it as a religious symbol, it also states the further historical fact that still more people, without regard to their religious affiliation, embraced the cross as a broader symbol of hope, life, and the human spirit.”

“Atheists died on 9/11, members of our organization suffered in lower Manhattan on that day, and our members helped with the rescue and recovery efforts—yet we are denied equal representation in the National Museum,” David Silverman, the president of American Atheists, wrote in a statement. “There are no better examples of Christian privilege and prejudice in this country than this decision and the refusal of the museum commission to work with us to honor atheists who died and suffered on 9/11.”

American Atheists have not yet decided if they will appeal the verdict.

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