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)
  1. jamesnyc

    If they can light the empire state building up for Stonewall and even the Pope, they can light it up for Mother Theresa. She has done something worthy of observing of it. They put on green lights for St. Patrick's Day and green for when the Jets went to the playoffs (I think)....
    Come on guys lighten up and show a little old lady some respect...

    June 10, 2010 at 1:52 pm |
  2. edshope

    Mother Teresa was a shining light during her life time in this dark world and her light shines brighter in eternity today. So, the lights of the Empire State are and will always be dull in comparison.

    Hail Mary!

    June 10, 2010 at 1:49 pm |
  3. boocat

    The spokesman who mentioned "anti-Catholic bigotry" is full of it. If the building is lit for her, pretty soon they will be asking to light it for every damn saint in the Catholic Church. I think they're overly sensitive becaus of the child molestations scandal. Well, so be it. And why they have saints (I was raised Catholic) to this day, I still do not know. It's all a bunch of b.s.

    June 10, 2010 at 1:48 pm |
  4. kevin

    what's up with the 5th grade "belief blog" logo?

    June 10, 2010 at 1:47 pm |
  5. DavidReddy

    Thank you empire state building. Mother theresa lived a committed life, but she was a fanatic. She was committed to relegious conversion, that's why she chose to go to India when she was given the opportunity to chose from going to Africa or India. Africa was already chritianized by then, so she cose India. While I can not dare to compare to an islamic fanatic, she is driven by her fanatic duty. When it comes to playing media, she is no angel. She ignored Indian media all the time and cherry picked the wetern media powers for interviews and propaganda. Yes, she was committed with her selfish motive. But, the beneficiaties of her madness were the lucky people,no doubt about that.

    June 10, 2010 at 1:46 pm |
  6. Renee

    "I hope it's going to be nonviolent..."??? What kind of thugs are down there protesting? Are they saying that religious groups can put pressure on any person of organization to do their will? Disgraceful, and even frightening thinking.

    June 10, 2010 at 1:45 pm |
  7. Manolete

    Malkin's decision isn't "indefensible and obscene" – that would describe Bill Donohue's take on what the Church is all about.
    Bill might be shocked to learn that "Mother" Teresa is a controversial and far from generally beloved figure in the communities where she operated, based on the FACT that she spent more time and energy in her attempts to sabotage any form of birth control than on helping individuals. The preemptively singular cause for the poverty in which this woman rooted around is overpopulation, which she determined to exacerbate because it's "God's Will". She didn't love poor people; she loved poverty. So, Mr. Donohue, go ahead and make her a saint, so she can join your heavenly minions in bigotry, pedophilia and persecution of "heretics". Bravo for Malkin!

    June 10, 2010 at 1:43 pm |
  8. JimMNH

    Communist China display, honor Yankees World Series win, and Jewish parade? And no light display for Mother Theresa even though she helped people of all faiths? Sounds like shunning because she was Catholic to me. I was under the impression that we had moved past religious persecution in this country but I guess not. Why shun someone who worked so hard for humanity .. regardless of their faith? What's next .. no lights for Gandhi or the Dali Lama?

    June 10, 2010 at 1:42 pm |
  9. Blutosski

    I think you are getting Catholics mixed up with Yankees Fans…… Go Sox (red for the color blind)

    June 10, 2010 at 1:41 pm |
  10. BarryC

    Mother Theresa is not the person most people see her as. She is in one very real sense, a fiction. It emerged after her death that she hadn't believed in God for over 17 years before her death but was told to keep that quiet by the Vatican. She was afterall a great marketing tool. . Read Christopher Hitchens's book on this lady and you might think twice about honoring her. The lights shouldn't shine.

    June 10, 2010 at 1:41 pm |
  11. Scarlette

    I think the empire state building has every right to do what they want with their lights. They have no obligation just becuase catholic church feels slighted. I think its overgrown its powerfulness and needs a little humility to itself. How about a little less scandal and more humility.

    June 10, 2010 at 1:40 pm |
  12. allanhowls

    The right way to celebrate her birthday would be to infect millions of people with disease, just as she allowed to happen. Her steadfast opposition to and blockage of condoms to those most in need allowed AIDS to swell to epidemic proportions. Concern for the poor, my spotted bum. She loved her dogma more than she loved those people. Let her continue to rot where she is. Forget her, and let's start moving the human race forward.

    June 10, 2010 at 1:38 pm |
    • NakkiNyan

      I like your idea 😀

      How about we ban the use of condoms on August 29th in her honor since that is what she wanted most.

      June 11, 2010 at 3:51 pm |
  13. Sarah

    Mother Teresa is rolling over in her grave right now. Not because the ESB declined to shine a bunch of stupid lights on her would-be birthday but because her followers would rather spend the day obsessing over something this petty than continuing her real cause. Most people envision Mother Teresa as this perfect, universal good but not everyone sees it that way. Honoring a person in a public way is always controversial because when you do it, you appear to endorse everything they stood for (and I'm not just talking about religion). Despite past precedent, that can be complicated or problematic for a building like the ESB which is a national landmark. I'm not saying don't honor the dead, but there are better ways to do it than to force an unwilling party to turn on some lights. Sometimes I think Bill Donohue just enjoys imposing his will and beliefs on everyone else. Anti-Catholic bigotry? Really? So believing in a secular state or even not believing in God is bigotry? How typical – "Everyone has a right to their opinions as long as they agree with mine." I mean LISTEN to this guy: "I hope it's going to be nonviolent, I wouldn't encourage violence but I know there's a lot of anger". He might as well say to his followers "you would be justified in getting violent and now that I have alleviated myself of any responsibility, go ahead". If he really wanted to prevent violence and honor Mother Teresa he would get over himself and his little tiff with Anthony Malkin and say something along the lines of "Well Mother Teresa would remind us that lights on a building don't matter – it's what we do for other people that counts" and he would encourage those who want to protest to spend the day helping people instead. But he won't do that because he is a mouthpiece who would rather poke the fire than do anything constructive.

    June 10, 2010 at 1:38 pm |
  14. Marc Seltzer

    I think it's fine the way it is. Eid, Christ,as and Chaunukka is sufficient.

    June 10, 2010 at 1:37 pm |
  15. Imbecile

    If there's anything positive that's coming out of this, it's that Catholic threats don't carry the same weight they used to. It's nice to see an organization that used to systematically torture people for simply suggesting that maybe the earth revolves around the sun can now not even get some lights turned on.

    June 10, 2010 at 1:36 pm |
    • Ginger Lemon


      June 10, 2010 at 2:54 pm |
  16. Laura

    Mother Teresa deserves NO praise. She denied the poor the thing that they needed most – access to birth control. Reproductive choice is the most fundamental helpline for anyone trying to climb out of abject poverty. The Catholic Church stance against birth control is second only to its protection of pedophiles.

    June 10, 2010 at 1:35 pm |
    • Jers

      You've got the causality wrong – most folks who study this sort of thing argue that reduced fertility is correlated with affluence, but the latter causes the former due to the increased opportunity costs of rearing young, not the other way around.

      June 10, 2010 at 4:00 pm |
  17. Rick

    The ESB does pretty much light up for every event you could think of, but the key thing to remember is that the ESB's owners are paid and paid well. Major holidays/religious events are done pro-bono. The effort to light it up in Mother Teresa's colors was requested to be done for free to honor her, and the ESB is saying basically no pay, no play.

    June 10, 2010 at 1:35 pm |
    • XanderdraX

      Yeah, sure. That and the fact the building is owned by Jews.

      June 10, 2010 at 1:40 pm |
    • NakkiNyan

      ... those Jews still light up fro christmas. Yet they don't celebrate the life of some dead jew.

      June 11, 2010 at 3:47 pm |
  18. VikW

    Perfect. Just what Mother Theresa would have wanted. A bunch of people protesting and displaying outrage and anger over a colored light display in honor of her life. She herself would have probably thought it trivial. If the Empire State Building had decided to honor her that way while she was still alive, she probably would have beseeched the owners to turn off the lights and donate the saved money from the electrical bill to charities instead. One does not need to be Catholic to appreciate and honor Mother Theresa's message to the world, but it's pretty darn sad when the Catholic league chooses to dishonor her life work with ridiculous accusations of anti-catholic bigotry over a bombastic light display.

    "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," - No, Christine Quin, it is clear that you have.

    Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League For Religious and Civil Rights, called the decision "mind-boggling" and "indefensible and obscene," - Not so Bill, but your reasoning is.

    June 10, 2010 at 1:31 pm |
  19. Mr. bob

    lol i totally agree with mosman, but you know, juss fer fun, how about we all look up how many religius wars there have been and how many people were slaughtered and killed fighting for something still unproven. you sound like a religious person bashing something that can be proven (science/evolution) and protecting some mystical fairytale being(god/preists) lol. besides, i think david dude was just being sarcastic

    June 10, 2010 at 1:31 pm |
  20. hjs3

    "Privlege" this....

    Oh and "Frosty" you clearly should be doubling up on those meds....

    June 10, 2010 at 1:29 pm |
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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.