- Why are you choosing to launch a lawsuit on this issue at this time?
There are constitutional church-state violations going on all over the United States all of the time, but this memorial represents a highly emotional and immense tragedy that touched and continues to touch the hearts of almost all Americans.
American Atheists regularly and consistently attempted to bring our concerns about the proposed girder cross being included in the 9/11 Memorial to memorial and other government officials ever since we first heard the idea suggested in 2002. Those efforts have been consistently ignored. Not only has there been no effort by memorial officials to communicate with us to seek an acceptable solution for all parties, there has been no recognition by anyone involved with the memorial that our concerns were even heard. When the cross was placed in the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, we were left with no other choice but to file a lawsuit.
- The 9/11 Memorial Commission has promised to include a Jewish Star of David and other Jewish memorabilia in the memorial. Wouldn’t this satisfy your demands of equality?
The promise to include Jewish symbols in the Memorial was made after our lawsuit was filed, strongly suggesting that the 9/11 Memorial committee was simply trying in retrospect to minimize the Christian footprint in the Memorial. However, it is absurd to think that adding a prayer shawl and a Torah in a display case next to a 20-foot high, 10-ton girder cross is going to provide equal inclusion. And adding one more religious symbol to this memorial only confirms the legitimacy of our lawsuit that the inclusion of the girder cross was religiously motivated.
Muslims, Buddhists and atheists all died in 9/11. We need and expect a memorial that honors all Americans, not just the Christian and Jewish ones.
We also wonder how practical it is to attempt to include symbols for every minority group in the Memorial. If every minority group touched by 9/11 tried to include their own memorial symbol, especially one that matched the size of the girder cross, it would take up all of the space in the Memorial many times over. The much more practical way to address our concerns would seem to be to leave divisive and exclusionary symbols like the girder cross out of the Memorial and include only artifacts and displays that include and represent all of the victims and their families. The rest of the Memorial is full of such inclusive symbols and displays. But that’s a choice the 9/11 Memorial Committee would have to make. We’re not trying to dictate how they choose to address our concerns, only that they do address them.
- Why are you wasting the memorial committee’s time and resources in bringing up this frivolous court action?
The question is why did the government and memorial officials refuse to engage with us when we repeatedly raised our concerns? The cross was planned into the 9/11 Memorial without any input from the non-Christian community or the victims’ families from our community. Despite extensive lobbying efforts on our part to Memorial officials over the past nine years to engage in such a dialogue, we were consistently shut out through the entire planning and construction process. At the point where this girder cross was inserted into the Memorial, we were left with no other choice to avoid the precedent becoming set.
- Why a lawsuit? Aren’t there much less offensive ways of getting your point across?
American Atheists spends most of its time in advocacy and education, lobbying and educating our elected officials and sponsoring educational forums. We spent considerable resources over the past nine years attempting to engage memorial and government officials on our concerns with the insertion of the girder cross in the 9/11 Memorial and suggesting possible solutions. Despite that effort, we never received any invitation to enter into any dialogue. At the point where this girder cross was inserted into the Memorial, we were left with no other choice but to seek legal relief to avoid the precedent becoming set.
- If you are so sure of your position, why do you suppose government officials were so willing to do this?
Elected officials often represent their own or minority interests’ agendas. US president James Madison referred to that unavoidable fact in the Federalist Papers as ‘Factionalism’. He saw that as a natural and healthy aspect of our Republic and believed that democracy would be best served by each faction struggling against all the other factions to achieve its self-interests.
There have been religious advocates opposed to church-state separation since the founding of this Republic. They have had over 230 years to raise money, frame issues, raise their own candidates, and lobby elected officials to weaken and undermine the Constitutional underpinnings of our First Amendment.
On the other hand, our community has only recently begun organizing and has a long way to go to catch up to that level of lobbying to insist that our rights be respected and enforced. This action is a necessary step in seeing that they be so.
- A lot of people are quite angry over the lawsuit. Why would you be attacking something that obviously a lot of people gained much comfort from after the devastation? Aren’t you infringing on people’s freedom of religion?
We’re not infringing or attacking anyone’s right of conscience. We’re actually fighting to uphold the American principle of freedom of religion for all religious communities that have been marginalized and rendered invisible by this sectarian display. We are attacking the choices made by our government to provide taxpayer funding for what now appears intended to be a sectarian memorial for one particular religious community.
- Obviously a lot of people gained much comfort from the cross after the devastation, and the girder cross is certainly a part of history. Aren’t you trying to deny that comfort and history from Americans?
We are not trying to deny anyone the right to gain comfort regarding this or any other tragedy from whatever symbols they find valuable. We have had no problem with the girder cross residing and being venerated at St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church. Our question is why Friar Jordan and his community were not satisfied with that placement and why they insisted that it be placed in a memorial meant for all Americans of all faiths.
It is a serious and sensitive question. One of the most well-established causes of the 9/11 attacks was because of religious sectarianism. While many Catholics and other religious sects may have found the cross to be of comfort to them, many other Americans see it as a reminder of the religious motivations behind the 9/11 attacks and that it represents a similar (though obviously much less violent) effort to impose a single religious ideology on all of us. Many Americans also see the cross as a hypocritical mocking of the fact that almost 3,000 people perished in the WTC attacks without any divine intervention whatsoever. Simply on the basis of human decency and compassion, the WTCMF should have sought out far less divisive and controversial choices to represent all Americans in the 9/11 Memorial.
Is it historical? No more so than any other WTC building remains. The entire WTC structure was made up of tens of thousands of cross beams welded together. Most of the surviving shards of the World Trade Center were taken off-site and placed in a hanger for forensic analysis, eventually to be recycled or otherwise disposed of. The girder cross would have shared that fate if Franciscan friar Brian Jordan had not demanded the shard and threatened “civil disobedience” if it was not turned over to his local church. Any historical uniqueness attributed to this one shard would be based only on the efforts of a local religious group taking it and turning it into their own religious symbol.
Nonetheless, one of the tests under the First Amendment is whether a governmental action "has the effect of promoting a particular religion." So from that perspective, it doesn't matter whether this is a piece of history and was intended as nothing more than part of a display about how Americans reacted to the cross. When you set a 20-foot cross next to a prayer shawl and copy of the Torah, the cross dominates. The effect is that Christianity dominates. And, therefore, Christianity is promoted. Regardless of intent, if the result is such a promotion, the First Amendment has been violated. That's why case law exists concerning equal space, which is what we are demanding.
People gain comfort from other people who share their views and perspectives, and such groups often find that commonality through shared symbols. The 9/11 Memorial is loaded with such common symbols that represent all of the 9/11 victims and their families. But the girder cross is not one of them. It’s a symbol shared and appreciated by only one segment of Americans. Its disharmony with the rest of the symbols of shared tragedy on the 9/11 Memorial site only add to its jarring effect to those of us outside the Christian community.
- How is this memorial cross hurting you?
The US government has spent millions of dollars on the WTC Memorial. If it was meant to be a sectarian memorial, it should have been funded by private sources.
- So it’s just a taxpayer issue, rather than a moral one?
This goes way beyond a simple taxpayer issue.
The placement of this cross in a taxpayer-funded memorial intended to represent and touch all Americans is argued by many as a betrayal of the civil liberties and values upon which this country was founded and which were enshrined in the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Many Americans see such an accommodation as a mockery of the very values which the 9/11 terrorists despised and which they themselves had hoped to undermine in their attack.
In spite of those Constitutionally-enshrined civil liberties, atheists are second-class citizens in many parts of this country. Numerous recent surveys have found that atheists are the most distrusted, most disliked minority in the USA. Our own government military service designates atheists as “spiritually unfit”; our children are mocked and harassed in school by other children and teachers. Our government actively funds and promotes an active and ongoing bias and discrimination against the atheist community. This issue is just the latest of those efforts by government officials and Christian advocates to marginalize not just atheists, but anyone in this country who isn’t Christian.
Aren’t there plenty of crosses in museums, in public cemeteries, and even on government land? The Arlington Memorial Cemetery is filled with Christian crosses. Why should this particular cross be treated any differently?
Unlike those other displays, this would be the first Christian cross (or any other religious artifact) to be installed in a taxpayer-funded museum in a religious ceremony. It was also done under protest by taxpayers in good standing; and when the lawsuit was filed, the memorial plans were changed after-the-fact to intentionally include other religious artifacts. These circumstances give a strong case that the very purpose and intent of the installation was religious, which is much harder to demonstrate with other cross installations.
Standing is partly based on responding at the earliest opportunity when a constitutional violation is noted. Other crosses were mounted at a time and place where there was no current objection or reason to object (the land or building was originally private property, etc.). To preserve our standing, American Atheists had to act as soon as the Constitutional violation was effected.
The Arlington Memorial Cemetery includes a memorial marker for each gravesite at the cemetery. Families are free to choose from a variety of markers, including one that includes an atheist symbol. We don’t have any problem with that. But that is very different from the one, huge, religious token being installed at the WTC Memorial: The Memorial does not speak for or represent one American, it represents and speaks for all of us. Or at least it should. This girder-cross marginalizes and excludes those who do not share the Christian worldview and beliefs, and does so at government expense.
- Isn’t it presumptuous for American Atheists to offer a memorial of their own organization symbol to speak for all nontheists?
While American Atheists has offered to fund and provide an equivalent memorial to the 9/11 girder cross (an offer that we have made multiple times over the past few years but without response), we have not offered or even considered any designs yet. It would be premature to do so prior to any indication from the WTCMF that they would consider including any such memorial. Should they provide such indication, American Atheists would seek as wide a range of opinions and suggestions as we could get for what the final design might be.
- The US was clearly founded as a Christian nation, and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment was intended only to keep the US government from establishing a national church. The girder cross doesn’t establish a national church and only reflects the heritage of our country.
This is a bit irrelevant from the issue around the 9/11 cross, but contains enough loaded terms based on factual errors to deserve correction.
The US is not a ‘Christian’ nation any more than it is a ‘female’ nation or a ‘white’ nation or a ‘right-handed’ nation. Characteristics held by a majority of people in a country do not, in fact, determine the character of the country as a whole or the values held by that country’s government. The US is, in fact, a secular republic – the first in modern history! – founded on the US Constitution and the rights therein, among which include the First Amendment and freedom of conscience, which are based on the uniquely American values of religious tolerance and diversity.
Nor is it accurate to portray the US as ‘a Christian’ (singular) nation. There is no one version of Christianity that a majority of Americans practice or believe. According to Wikipedia.org, there are over 1,000 different Christian sects in the United States, and their beliefs run the gamut from Unitarians who believe Jesus and other Bible stories to be allegorical to the staunch Calvinists of the Christian Reconstructionists who take everything written in the Bible is inerrant. Further, most of those sects believe all of the other sects to be heretics and infidels. It would be more accurate (but still wrong) to claim that the US is ‘a nation of Christianities’.
It would seem self-evident that the government of the United States is not based in any way on Christianity, as the Bible makes no mention of elections by the people, separation of powers, or even human rights; and the US Constitution makes no mention of any such religious roots. The intent of the founders of this country in regards to ‘Christian Nation’ status were stated with crystal clarity in the Treaty of Tripoli, negotiated by the Washington administration and signed with the Muslim Berbers under the Adams administration in 1797 and unanimously ratified by the US Senate. It starts off with the very plain assertion that “...the Government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” The idea that the First Amendment was intended to ward off a national church is a recent construction by religious advocates that has no basis in the founding documents of this country.
Article VII of the US Constitution also states that any international treaties that the US signs are a part of US Constitutional law. In 1947, the US signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, later renamed the International Bill of Human Rights. The IBHR expands the rights of freedom of conscience and separation between government and religion. Those expanded rights are now part of US Constitutional law.