June 10th, 2010
11:39 AM ET

Empire State Building declines to light up for Mother Teresa

CNN's Mythili Rao reports from New York:

August marks what would have been Mother Teresa's 100th birthday, with commemorative masses, exhibitions and other events around the world heralding the occasion. But count the Empire State Building out of the celebrations.

New York City's tallest skyscraper has declined to shine the colorful, festive lights that it reserves for special occasions in her honor, leaving some of the nun's followers feeling slighted.

"Selection as an Empire State Building Lighting Partner is at the sole discretion of the ownership and management of the Empire State Building Company LLC," the privately owned building's website says. The site says that selection is "a privilege, not an entitlement."

Outside its practice of lightings for Christmas, Easter, Hanukkah and Eid al-Fitr (the end of Ramadan), the Empire State Building "has a specific policy against any other lighting for religious figures or requests by religions and religious organizations," ESB owner Anthony E. Malkin said in a statement.

Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League For Religious and Civil Rights, called the decision "mind-boggling" and "indefensible and obscene," speculating that anti-Catholic bigotry was at play.

"Malkin has made his decision to stiff Catholics," Donohue said. "His decision to double down at this juncture - in the face of massive support for our request - is something he will regret for the rest of his life."

The Catholic League plans to demonstrate outside the Empire State Building on August 26, which would have been the 100th birthday of Mother Teresa, who cared for the poor and homeless of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), India. She died in 1997.

The Catholic League says over 40,000 people have signed a petition in favor of the lights. "I think that too many Catholics have fallen asleep at the wheel," Donohue told CNN. "It's time for people, the rank and file to say enough is enough. I hope it's going to be nonviolent, I wouldn't encourage violence but I know there's a lot of anger."

The brewing controversy has found an ally in New York City Council speaker Christine Quinn, a Catholic. Quinn said that lighting the Empire State Building in Mother Teresa's honor would "be a very uplifting and unifying and inspiring message to have at a time when I think the city could use it."

"I think the organization that owns the Empire State Building seeing this as a religious request is really missing much of the significance of the life's work of Mother Teresa, across the world and in New York City," Quinn said.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York said that a spokesperson was not immediately available for comment.

The lighting tradition dates back to 1932, when the Empire State Building shined a 50-mile searchlight beacon to announce that Franklin D. Roosevelt had been elected president. Colored lighting wasn't introduced til 1976, when the tower was lit in red, white and blue for the American Bicentennial.

The vast majority of the occasions and organizations honored in lights by the Empire State Building are secular causes - June honorees include the World Series, Caribbean Week, and the Belmont Stakes, among others - but the building has been known to make exceptions, honoring Pope John Paul II and former New York Archbishop John Joseph O'Connor in years past.

In May, the skyscraper was lit blue and white to call attention to the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York's Salute to Israel Parade.

The Empire State Building has been recognized as an official landmark by the National Parks Services and the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission since the 1980s.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Catholic Church • Culture wars

soundoff (371 Responses)
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    November 27, 2013 at 11:24 pm |
  2. JR

    Funny they don't mention that the building was lit up RED to commeorate the COMMUNIST REVOLUTION in china. I wonder why the Communist News Network left that out.

    June 15, 2010 at 4:02 pm |
  3. Cheryl

    Simply put it is a privately owed building. They can do as they please.

    I find this embarrasing for Catholics – not the only religion in this country.

    Answer this, what has Mother Theresa done for NYC? The US?

    Diane – NYC charges for most parades – go apply for a permit and see – thanks, I'm now embarrased to be a Native New Yorker.

    June 15, 2010 at 1:14 am |
  4. Diane

    I'm not really a person of faith, but I disagree with the decision. In NYC, nearly every ethnic group, no matter how badly their members behave, gets a parade at taxpayers expense. I'm a native New Yorker so I know this for a fact.

    So why can't the Empire State Building be lit up for Mother Theresa who gave selflessly and inspired so many?
    Doesn't make sense.

    June 14, 2010 at 4:17 pm |
  5. EZ

    Sorry, but they need to get over it. Its a privately owned building. They are not obligated to celebrate the birthday of teresa. Just because she helped others does not mean that everyone has to take a part in her glorification. Once again, this is catholics forcing, or better here, trying to guilt the community to follow their requests by becoming sheep.

    June 14, 2010 at 1:54 pm |
  6. Fingirero

    The building only serves as a beacon (worldly representation). But as with the inspiration of her works, it'll live forever. And it's best represented if those who believe in her will start helping the poor and children right now instead of whining about lighting a building for a certain short period of time.

    June 13, 2010 at 11:46 am |
  7. DDRM

    Wow – some of these comments make me think I'm in a Communist regime where religion is taboo! Boo! This woman did more for the poor people than most famous people can ever imagine. While this is a privately owned building – I have as much of a right to state that I will refuse to patron the Empire State Building. That is my right too. They had no problem marking China's communism regime but have an issue with a Catholic nun! Oh my goodness. Get a grip folks.

    June 13, 2010 at 10:21 am |
  8. Joel Dockery

    Because of course Mother Theresa was such a show off I am sure she would want the Empire State Building to be lit up for no reason. Get a life people. Are you going to come after me next because I have a 4th of July party but none for her?

    June 13, 2010 at 9:30 am |
  9. you do not own jesus

    The Catholic League needs to be reminded we live in a secular state where private owners are not required to bow down to their religious iconograpy anymore than Saint Patrick's should be forced to light menorahs.

    June 12, 2010 at 7:26 pm |
  10. Vince

    Remember, Mother T was super modest - this would not be in her interest if you Catholics even cared what she thought. Catholics are the evil of the world, on par with Muslims and hard-line Christians... Yuck.

    June 12, 2010 at 11:35 am |
  11. Keith

    Bill Donohue's mind boggles easily.

    June 12, 2010 at 9:43 am |
  12. Splovengates

    Donohue said ...is something he will regret for the rest of his life." Beware of the Catholic church organization. It the worst religion in the world. They have more power than you think. It takes guts to stand up to them

    June 12, 2010 at 7:53 am |
  13. Kevin

    Arrest the Pope and I'd agree to turn on the lights. No problem.

    June 12, 2010 at 5:35 am |
  14. roger

    I have NO religion don't care about religion and believe religion is the most destructive idea man has ever invented! Mother Theresa did spend her life in helping the poor and should be honored. Yes this is a private building and they can do what they wish but to honor a singer and the Chinese doesn"t fly

    June 11, 2010 at 9:08 pm |
  15. PiercedPsycho

    Sorry I didn't respond earlier Mosman-I've been busy potty-training my elbow-biting toddler.

    I am a mother, and I help take care of my husband's great-grandmother. She's not even my own flesh and blood, and I help take care of her. Mother Theresa supported the caste system, which kept the poor in their place. How anyone can support such a horrendous system of inequality is beyond fathoming.

    Yes, she took care of sick people-people who wouldn't have been in that situation if the caste system didn't exist.

    June 11, 2010 at 1:43 pm |
  16. Smit

    Could you imagine if they refused to light it up with rainbow colors for a gay pride day? No one would be saying "its their choice, they shouldn't be forced to do something they don't want to do." Although it is a private building, it is a very public display and they should not be surpised that people are upset when they refuse to celebrate someone who is almost universally admired for charitable works because they don't want to honor "religious" figures or entertain requests from religious organiations. I think their decision, althought they are perfectly within their rights to make it, is meanspirited plain and simple. No good reason to refuse to celebrate the life and works of Mother Teresa. Especially because the building has dolled itself up for such trivialities as the release of a Mariah Carey album. As an aside, yes a much better tribute to Mother Teresa would be to rededicate ourselves to helping our fellow human beings. Lighting up the Empire State Building is really small potatoes in comparison with that goal.

    June 11, 2010 at 10:41 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.