(Photo: Reuters / Chip East)
A federal judge has ruled that the display of an iconic cross-shaped steel beam in the National September 11 Memorial and Museum doesn't violate the constitutional and civil rights of atheists.
U.S. District Judge Deborah Batts concluded Thursday that the 17-foot-high cross, which became a spiritual symbol for workers at ground zero, does not amount to an endorsement of Christianity, according to Reuters.
New Jersey-based American Atheists Inc. filed a lawsuit in 2011 against the planned presentation of the cross-shaped beam, arguing it will impose religion "through the power of the state."
"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, the judge wrote. "The Museum's purpose is to tell the history surrounding September 11, and the cross … helps tell part of that history."
The museum, which is scheduled to open in 2014, 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.
The cross, made up of two intersecting steel beams found intact amid the rubble of the Sept. 11 attacks, was moved from the side of St. Peter's Church in Lower Manhattan and installed at the 9/11 memorial.
Joe Daniels, president of the memorial foundation, was quoted as saying that he was glad the court agreed the display of the cross "is in fact a crucial part of the 9/11 Memorial Museum's mission."
David Silverman, president of American Atheists, said his group intends to appeal. "They're trying to Christianize 9/11 with this cross and it's not American and it's not fair," he was quoted as saying.
The museum had argued that it is an "independent nonprofit corporation," and not a government body. It also said the cross is an "important and essential artifact" that "belongs at the World Trade Center site as it comprises a key component of the re-telling of the story of 9/11."
Silverman responded by saying the shrine is a cross that was "picked up, trimmed, polished, the word 'Jesus' was carved on top of it, it was prayed over in front of a church for five years, and then it was installed in the WTC memorial with no warning by a priest in a religious service where in the ground was consecrated."
Many individual atheists openly spoke against American Atheists after it filed the lawsuit. Susan Jacoby, an atheist contributor of The Washington Post, described the group as having "an unerring nose for the scent of publicity," their suit "nonsense," and their leader, "obtuse."
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg also defended the display of religious symbols, including the World Trade Center cross, at the museum after the lawsuit was filed. "A lot of people looked to religion for strength after the attack," he said. "My personal opinion has always been you shouldn't tell people what religion to practice or whether to practice a religion but you shouldn't also prevent people from practicing a religion they want in any ways they want."