(Photo: Reuters / Chip East)
The American Atheists group is appealing against a federal district court's decision to keep a cross fashioned by two steep beams recovered from the Twin Towers' collapse at the 9/11 memorial museum, while the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) has filed an amicus brief in support of the decision, criticizing the attempt to "literally rewrite history."
"As the district court correctly held, it is entirely appropriate and lawful for the curators of a museum to acknowledge the Cross's actual, historic role by placing it in the September 11 Memorial Museum," said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the ACLJ.
"A museum has the freedom to display religiously-themed artifacts of historical or artistic significance without running afoul of the Constitution. We urge the appeals court to affirm the decision of the district court which rejected this bizarre legal challenge."
The Cross Memorial, displayed at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City, become an emotional symbol for many in the aftermath of the attack, where nearly 3,000 people lost their lives.
American Atheists, one of the nation's largest secular organizations, filed the initial federal suit claiming that the Cross is unconstitutional in 2012, but the lawsuit was dismissed in March 2013.
"No reasonable observer would view the artifact is endorsing Christianity" because the cross is to be accompanied by placards explaining its meaning and surrounded by secular artifacts, wrote U.S. District Judge Deborah Batts. "The Museum's purpose is to tell the history surrounding September 11, and the cross … helps tell part of that history."
The secular group, who are now appealing the case, states that the Cross alienates non-Christians seeking to commemorate the dead.
"The Cross also alienates those who wish to learn about events at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum," the group explains in its filing. "The 17-foot tall Christian Cross is one of the largest objects in the Memorial. It dominates all other religious objects. The inclusion of information to accompany the Cross does not change the essential facts that in the present case the government is sponsoring and erecting an indisputably religious symbol which advances one religion above all other religions and non-religion as well."
The ACLJ insists, however, that the U.S. Supreme Court in the past has said that exhibits like the Cross are constitutionally permissible and do not violate the Establishment Clause.
"In the days and weeks following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the challenged World Trade Center Cross (the "Cross") had a widely documented and positive effect on the First Responders at the Ground Zero site," the legal group's brief contends.
"Offended observers (even observers whose offense is so great that they claim physical illness) cannot be permitted to rewrite history or constitutional precedent. Acknowledging history does not establish a religion, and Plaintiffs-Appellants' lawsuit is without merit."
The ACLJ says that the brief represents 230,000 Americans who are all backing the ground zero Cross remaining at the museum.
The museum itself is scheduled to open in 2014, and will display artifacts including photographs, mementos, two fire trucks, an ambulance, part of the World Trade Center's facade and the last column that was removed from ground zero.