The American Atheists organization has issued a letter to the Mayor of Princeton, New Jersey, promising to file an injunction if the mayor goes ahead with plans to place a steel beam, taken from the site of the World Trade Center, on public property. The atheist group believes that a cross carved out on the side of the steel beam in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks would be "grossly offensive" and "alienate many people." Instead, the atheist group wants the beam placed in a designated "free speech zone," which would allow others to erect their own memorials related to atheism as well as other religious groups.
"While the intention to commemorate those who died at the World Trade Center is admirable and appropriate for a community, the use of such a singular religious image will be grossly offensive and alienating to many people," Bruce Afran, attorney for The American Atheists, wrote to Mayor Liz Lempert.
Afran added that the group expects an answer to its demands by Sept. 3.
The steel beam was in fact brought to New Jersey by Deputy Fire Chief Roy James, who had hoped it could be used to honor fallen firefighters. The cross in the beam was carved out during the recovery effort at the World Trade Center site after 9/11. Welders reportedly cut small crosses from many of the beams found in the wreckage from the World Trade Center, and placed them on the stretchers of fallen firefighters and police officers as their bodies were removed from the site to honor them and their sacrifice.
"We didn't take this piece of steel and carve out the cross ourselves," James, himself a Jew, told WPVI News in July. "We didn't ask for it to be there. This is the way this steel came to us. As a Jew, it doesn't bother me," he added.
However, Afran noted in his letter from the atheist organization: "While the image of the cross on the girder is the space remaining after a cross was carved from the girder, it nonetheless presents the indisputable image of a cross on a memorial for those who died in the attacks of 9/11 – a religious image in remembrance of the dead. It goes without saying that the image of the cross is a common religious feature on the graves of the deceased who adhered in life to a Christian faith."
New Jersey Deputy Fire Chief James has worked with other groups to fund the memorial, which could cost $100,000, according to The Times of Trenton. However, various donors have overwhelmingly placed their support behind the memorial project and have offered to front the cost of the memorial site, which they had hoped to locate on the state-owned land near the Princeton Battle Monument.
Some have proposed placing the beam in such a way that the cross is not visible to the public. However, James is adamant that the cross be displayed in memory of those who died in the attack.
"If we take that away, if we hide it, we don't show that – number one – we are taking out history," he argued.
Meanwhile, Mayor Lempert has promised to look into the matter and said, "We have our attorney looking into if we would be open to litigation for this and what the risk is."