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September 10th, 2012
06:15 PM ET

Atheists continue battle against World Trade Center cross at memorial

By Dan Merica, CNN

Washington (CNN) – Eleven years after the World Trade Center attack, the billion dollar memorial and museum dedicated to the victims of 9/11 is just half that - a memorial without an operating museum.

And though a dispute between New York City’s mayor and New York’s governor is responsible for delaying the opening, a separate legal battle is aimed at blocking one museum exhibit in particular: a large cross made of one of the twin tower’s T-beams that became a national symbol in the days after the 2001 attacks.

A national group called American Atheists is suing the museum to stop the display of the cross, arguing that a religious symbol has no place in a memorial that’s backed by public funds and that is supposed to serve as a monument to victims of many different religions - and to those who had no religion at all.

“It is important that it not be displayed to the exclusion of everyone else,” said David Silverman, president of the American Atheists, which first filed suit in July 2011. “This case is about inclusion, it is not about the elimination of religion, it is about the inclusion of everyone.”

The National September 11 Memorial & Museum says it included the cross because it “became an icon of hope and comfort throughout the recovery in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks.”

The case has gained national attention and has become important to many atheists and religious Americans alike. While atheist blogs and publications have pushed this case, spearheaded by American Atheists, conservative religious groups such as the American Center for Law and Justice have cited it as an example of growing anti-Christian sentiment and have filed an amicus brief in support of his display.

In light of all the attention, one legal expert says the atheists’ legal case is “absurd.”

“I think the odds of a court ordering the cross removed are literally zero,” said Jeffrey Toobin, CNN’s legal analyst. “The museum is not building a place for religious worship, they are preserving a historical relic that was meaningful to a great many people and part of the story of 9/11.”

Toobin compared the cross’s inclusion in the museum with the many other instances in which government-funded museums feature religious artwork.

“When the government is surveying a historic development, the government does not have to exclude religions images and artifacts from its displays,” Toobin said.

The 17-foot cross was discovered by Frank Silecchia, a construction worker who helped with the clean up and recovery at ground zero. The cross is a steel T-beam, a common architectural device used in the building of the World Trade Center towers.

The case hasn’t gotten anywhere since it was filed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan. The lawsuit names prominent government officials, including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, both of whom play a role in the deciding how the World Trade Center site is used.

Caught in a funding battle between Bloomberg on the one hand and Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on the other, it is unclear about when the museum will open. The memorial opened last year, on September 12, after families of those killed on September 11 marked the 10-year anniversary at the memorial.

The museum did not respond to a request for comment.

In documents submitted to the court, the museum defends the inclusion of the cross, saying that “the 9/11 Museum is an independent nonprofit corporation. Its curators’ decisions to display particular objects, such as the Artifact, in the Museum are not state actions to which Constitutional protections apply.”

In the same documents, the museum argues that even if constitutional protections apply, “there is no legal authority for the proposition that a museum is prohibited from displaying an item with historical, cultural or artistic significance merely because that item also has religious significance.”

Silverman rejects that argument. “The argument that this is not a religious symbol is asinine and arrogant,” he says. “They want 9/11 to appear to be an attack on Christianity, and it was not.”

Shortly after plans for a 9/11 museum started to be worked out, Silecchia, the construction worker, and the Rev. Brian Jordan, a priest who ministered to firefighters and emergency responders at ground zero, began to press to the inclusion of the World Trade Center cross in the memorial and museum.

“First of all, it is an artifact of ground zero,” Jordan told the Irish Echo, a small publication in New York, in 2002. “And secondly, it is sacred ground, for God’s sake.”

Jordan declined interview requests, saying in an e-mail that “after a careful period of reflection, I have decided not to make any public comment at this time.”

In the same interview, Jordan argued that the reason it should be included is because most of the victims were Christians - “the plurality of which were Catholic,” Jordan said. The cross was first displayed near the edge of ground zero, until on October 5, 2006, the cross was moved to St. John’s Church, where it sat on the corner of Barclay and Vesey streets.

Jordan’s efforts for the cross’ inclusion were successful, when on July 23, 2011, Jordan blessed the cross at a ceremony in Zuccotti Park before it was transported into its permanent setting in the museum.

“After a 10-year journey of faith, the World Trade Center Cross has finally found its home,”  Jordan said in a statement at the time.

- Dan Merica

Filed under: Atheism • Christianity • New York • United States

soundoff (5,753 Responses)
  1. Blessed are the Cheesemakers

    A building made out of

    TTTTTTTTTTTTT
    TTTTTTTTTTTTT
    TTTTTTTTTTTTT
    TTTTTTTTTTTTT

    Creates a T when it is knocked over

    IT'S A MIRACLE!

    March 9, 2014 at 11:15 pm |
  2. libertyguard1

    I tell you what....when pigs fly I'll acknowledge atheism as a valid whatever the hell it is.

    March 9, 2014 at 10:51 pm |
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    January 18, 2014 at 3:23 am |
  4. mark

    I only pray they find Christ before it is too late. We all make mistakes in life God knows I certainly have, but the mistake these folks make is particularly deadly.

    April 30, 2013 at 8:37 pm |
    • Joe

      If angry atheists find the Ground Zero cross makes them sick and they are angry they have to battle it in court, tell them just wait till you stand before that God you don't believe in, explaining why they didn't believe in Him and see how sick they feel then! It's time we the people grew a pair and started telling these whiners and their ACLU stooges to shut up, sit down and don't bother those who do believe.

      October 19, 2013 at 3:25 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      OOoooo, marks god is going to beat atheists up.

      Non belief makes your god mad mark? He sounds like he is a bit self centered....he needs to get over himself.

      March 9, 2014 at 11:23 pm |
  5. Mother of Dragons

    It's wrong to have ANY religious monuments at the site. There were people killed of all different faiths and some were atheist. It's not right to put a Cross there. it's disrespectful and intrusive. If there is a need to have symbols of faith then they need to make a plaque that has a symbol to represent every kind of faith including symbols that represent atheism.It's absurd that some people think their decisions is acceptable to represent everyone. This is not about Majority rules, it's about honoring those poor souls who were victims of hateful, vicious, horrible murderous religious zealots.

    April 30, 2013 at 6:06 pm |
    • mark

      and why does this cross bother you so much..why the heck do you care in the first place?? should we all tear down something just because it pleases your whim? or is it that you hate what the cross is all about? tell the truth...you dont care nothing about other faiths taking offense to this..you could care less. at the end of the day you stand for nothing, you criticize something you have no understanding of..because you have no point of reference to begin with. i pray He calls you to by name just as He did me some time ago...the alternative aint so good...but that is between you and Him.

      April 30, 2013 at 8:21 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      @mark

      It's really obvious that you didn't even read the entire post. Congratulations on your self-indulgent indignation.

      April 30, 2013 at 8:23 pm |
    • anirban

      I think we don't need to create issue out of everything. The cross is a t beam from the building. It happens to signify a religious symbol and during the pain people have taken solace in it. There is no malice in it. I am a Hindu and when I was told my father has cancer, I cried in front of a statue of Jesus as it was a Christian hospital. When you are in pain, you grief and you pray. The cross is just that. It is a symbol of the grief and the belief for the people to move on. I believe it has a place in the museum.

      May 1, 2013 at 1:56 am |
      • chlbclmom

        I love what you wrote.

        September 11, 2013 at 8:41 pm |
    • A respectful citizen

      I agree with you! The artifact might be a "T" cross beam and they even might want to display it which is fine. Displaying it in a religious sense (or a position that symbolizes as such) is wrong and disrespectful to those who hold other beliefs. Question, for everyone that are offended when other people do not want to see a cross there, are you okay with instead of a cross being displayed that some other religious symbol is used? If you are, then please show the same respect to other people. No one is showing a lack of respect to those who have strong beliefs in the cross, they are just saying show the equal amount of respect for everyone else.

      September 11, 2013 at 5:53 pm |
  6. Woody

    Jesus if he was , was but a man like the rest of us . The bible is a book of compiled stories written by people as they saw the world 2,000 years ago . Not the way we understand it today . If there was a God and he was a loving God . No one would have to suffer the way the human race has with slavery, war, disease, and starvation . We are but the human mammal . Nothing more ! Even the Pope has armed security and a bullet proof car . That tells me even the Pope does not believe angels or a God, or gods can protect him . We are what we are . No matter what we believe . We die not really knowing if for sure there is a heaven or hell . If God is as powerful as everyone says , why do we need armies and bombs to destroy one another ? China believes in no religion except for a hand full of people . Christians purchase products from Athiest every day ! Even the Christian bible and nativity scene are made by mostly non believers .

    April 30, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Your other assertions are speculative at best but this one can be verified:

      The most recent official census enumerated 4 million Roman Catholics and 10 million Protestants. However, independent estimates have ranged from 40 million to 100 million Christians. According to the China Aid Association, State Administration for Religious Affairs Director Ye Xiaowen reported to audiences at Beijing University and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences that the number of Christians in China had risen to 130 million by the end of 2006, including 20 million Catholics.[49][50] This has been officially denied by the Foreign Ministry.[51] According to a survey done by China Partner and East China Normal University in Shanghai, there are now 39 to 41 million Protestant Christians in China.[citation needed] These include Christians in registered and unregistered churches. All other numbers previously mentioned were rough estimates that never have been substantiated. The survey was done with 7,400 individuals in 2007-08 by China Partner in all 31 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions. Another survey done with 4,500 individuals by East China Normal University in Shanghai reveals up to 40 million.[citation needed] Other studies have suggested that there are roughly 54 million Christians in China, of which 39 million are Protestants and 14 million are Roman Catholics; these are seen as the most common and reliable figures.[52][53][54][55]

      April 30, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
    • Science

      Hey Bill your deal sucks ..but you knew that .

      April 30, 2013 at 6:09 pm |
  7. Jesus is the most powerful figure known to mankind (Fact)

    Ok i challenge all atheist/non-believers to a simple small short mature intellectual debate. I claim that there is a GOD, Higher Power, Intelligent Designer/Engineer, and Creator. You claim that there isnt a Creator and everything is a big coincidence. (If what i say about your claims are wrong please correct me) Here are the rules: No THEORIES and no BIBLE VERSES. Proven known facts ONLY, none requiring faith. I simply ask that you consider my facts as i will yours. I will provide 10 facts in defense to my claim and you can list as much as you will.
    1.The unseen order of our solar system.
    2. The accurate and precise distance of our sun and it's perfect compatibility with our moon. It's unfailing rising and sustaining power.
    3. The engineering of the earth in every aspect.
    4. Nature, it's power, beauty, and contributions.
    5. Natural law.
    6. Creatures, all of their different abilities, bodies, and behaviors.
    7. The extraordinary and intelligently designed human body and mind.
    8. My user name. Jesus indeed had the most influence and biggest impact in this world, bigger than anyone in all of time.
    9. Due to how orderly and precise creation is, the chance of the big bang theory or creation being a coincidence is statistically 0. Scientists have come up with approximate numbers that far exceed the trillions, but these numbers are made up from their theories which is why i didnt paste the number. As of right now the chances of life forming from nothing is statistically 0.
    10. Time & Life (consciousness)
    Please be respectful and list your facts. Do not bash mine but list yours, a fact showing that there is no Creator. Lets see if man can do the impossible.

    October 8, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • Adorable

      Agnostic atheist here. I don't think there's a god, but there's no way to know for sure.

      -There are so many stars, claiming that there are "billions" would be an embarrassingly small estimate. Around each star, there could be anywhere from zero to thousands of planets orbiting. Due to the shear number of planets, of course one has to have the perfect conditions to support life, which (over billions of years of EVOLUTION) has perfected all of those systems to the point where we can debate about where it all came from. If the system was not perfect, we would be like every other form of life that had failed and is no longer around.

      -Also, look up the percentage of Christians on earth compared to other religions. Jesus' influence was significant, but not the most influential, by a long shot.

      -Life forming from nothing, like where your 'god' came from? Everything is just a theory because there's no conceivable way (yet) to figuring out how the universe started.

      -Just because some foolish atheists think the cross shouldn't be displayed does not mean that all of us feel that way. Despite its religious value, I believe it is also culturally significant as a symbol of remembering those who have fallen.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:08 am |
    • Adorable

      In addition, it's impossible to prove that something doesn't exist. If you think it is, try to prove to me that unicorns don't exist.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:11 am |
  8. common sense

    It is amazing the hypocracy. People claiming eachother fools, neither side observing the hypocracy of their judgement of one another.

    October 2, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
  9. mk

    It is an historically significant piece of one of the towers that were destroyed on that horrific day, of course, it should be displayed! What is means to people is subjective... if a cross means nothing to you, it is simply scrap metal that survived the worst terrorist attack to the US since Pearl Harbor. If you see more in this piece of metal and it brings/brought you comfort, then there is no harm in that. No one at the museum is going to tell you what it has to mean to you. Seriously, must we keep wasting time and money on this type of BS?

    October 2, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  10. Common Sense Theist

    If Atheists wants to fight against this cross, they might as well fight to remove the letter "T" since it is also shape like a cross.

    October 1, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
    • One one

      Except the letter "T" is not symbolic of an instrument of torture and death. The letter "T" is never depicted with a man nailed to it. Finally, the letter "T" is not a Christian symbol.

      October 1, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
    • tired of it all

      I am an agnostic and the shape "t" means whatever you want it to mean. I agree with you common sense theist.

      December 30, 2012 at 7:09 am |
  11. Joe

    If you are an atheist, you don't believe in any religion, so why would a cross, which you state is meaningless to you be somehow offensive? As a catholic i wouldn't mind a david's star being put up. And it's just ignorant to say "brainless religious nuts" because i still believe the world is still 4.6 billion years old, I believe in moderate evolution, and quite frankly, I am a very smart guy. Just because i feel that a greater power created the universe is more viable than a random explosion does not make me, or any believer mentally inferior.

    September 29, 2012 at 10:52 am |
    • One one

      Would you be equally ok with Islamic symbols displayed along side of the cross ?

      October 1, 2012 at 7:35 pm |
    • tired of it all

      Speaking only for myself I would be equally ok with an Islamic symbol displayed along side the cross, or a pagan symbol, or a star of David or whatever symbol people find meaningful.

      December 30, 2012 at 7:04 am |
  12. Gen

    Maybe its time real atheists united and ran these guys out of business or at least made them wear their true colors. I know many atheists and not a one of them would take part in any of this representation. In fact, it disgusts them.

    September 28, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • tired of it all

      Very well said, Gen. As an agnostic I do not take issue with what anyone else chooses to believe or not believe, or put up. I am more bothered by someone being forced to take something down.

      December 30, 2012 at 7:07 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.