(Photo: Reuters / Chip East)
NEW YORK – A group of atheists filed a lawsuit Monday to prevent the World Trade Center cross from being displayed at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York City.
American Atheists, a group that describes its mission as protecting civil rights for non-believers, claims the government installation of the religious symbol is an unconstitutional "mingling of church and state."
The group’s president, Dave Silverman, insists that no religious symbols should be included in the memorial of the 9/11 terror attacks at Ground Zero if the Christian cross is the only symbol being represented.
"As a public accommodation, the memorial must allow us (and all other religious philosophies) to include our own display of equal size inside the museum, or not include the cross. Equality is an all-or-nothing deal," Silverman said in a statement.
The lawsuit, available on the group’s website, names the museum, New York and New Jersey, as well as Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Gov. Chris Christie, among others, as defendants.
The iconic World Trade Center cross, made up of two intersecting steel beams found intact amid the rubble of the 2001 terrorist attacks in downtown New York City, was placed inside the 9/11 memorial museum during a ceremony on Saturday. It was originally erected on Church St. on the side of St. Peter's Church, the oldest Catholic parish in New York.
According to museum organizers, construction worker Frank Silecchia discovered the 17-foot-tall cross in the vicinity of 6 World Trade Center after the Sept. 11 attacks. Since then, the cross, the only thing left standing amid the rubble, has become an icon of hope and comfort for many New Yorkers.
The cross is "an important part of our commitment to bring back the authentic physical reminders that tell the history of 9/11 in a way nothing else could," 9/11 Memorial president Joe Daniels said Saturday.
"Its return is a symbol of the progress on the Memorial & Museum that we feel rather than see, reminding us that commemoration is at the heart of our mission."
The museum, whose mission is to remember and honor the 3,000 people killed in the 1993 and 2001 terror attacks, invites the public to submit items to commemorate those who died during the attacks. It will open to the public in September 2012.
Ronda Velamia, who volunteered in cleanup efforts at the World Trade Center site, told CBS New York that the cross is not just about religion.
"The role that it played in Ground Zero was one of a unifying factor," Velamia said.
She and many others see the cross as "an inspiration for generations to come."
Last month, American Atheists also demanded that a new street sign, "Seven in Heaven Way," honoring seven firefighters killed during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, be removed.
Lawyers with the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) claim the group's desire to have the cross removed from the 9/11 memorial museum is "completely out of step with the Constitution."
“One atheist group’s agenda shouldn’t diminish the sacrifice made by the heroes of 9/11,” ADF Senior Counsel Byron Babione said in a statement. “A cross like this one simply does not amount to a government establishment of religion under either the U.S. Constitution or the New York Constitution."
Babione added, "The cross is not only known far and wide as a religious symbol, but also as a symbol of death, remembrance, and honor for the dead. Americans have long recognized this.”
ADF is currently fighting a different lawsuit filed by the atheist group that seeks the removal of roadside crosses honoring fallen Utah state troopers. A federal court ruled in favor of the crosses but an appeals court ruled against them.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to decide on the constitutionality of the memorial crosses.