(Photo: Reuters/Eric Thayer)
NEW YORK – Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Friday defended the display of religious symbols, including the World Trade Center cross, at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.
In his weekly radio address, Bloomberg responded to a lawsuit filed by a group of atheists seeking to remove the WTC cross display from a memorial commemorating those who died in the Sept. 11 attacks.
While the New York City mayor said the atheists had a "right to sue," he explained why the inclusion of religious symbols at the 9/11 museum should be allowed.
"A lot of people looked to religion for strength after the attack," said Bloomberg, who is named as one of the defendants in the suit filed by American Atheists.
"My personal opinion is 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."
He noted that other religious symbols, not just the WTC cross, would be on display at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. They include a Star of David cut from a piece of steel from the World Trade Center rubble, a Bible fused with a piece of steel found during the recovery effort and a Jewish prayer shawl.
"This influenced people. It gave them strength," said Mayor Bloomberg. "In a museum, you want to show things that impacted people's behavior back then even if you don't think it was right. It's history. Museums are for history and to teach people by example, well this is what people did back then and you are free to make your own decision."
He concluded, "This group of atheists, they're free in our country to not believe and not practice and we should defend their right to do that just as much as we should defend the right of every individual to practice and to believe."
The iconic WTC 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 on July 23.
American Atheists issued a legal challenge against constitutionality of the cross two days later, alleging the cross is a "Christian icon" and an inappropriate "mingling of church and state." The atheist group is demanding that unless other faiths also be allowed to post up their religious symbols inside the memorial, the WTC cross should be removed.
American Center for Law and Justice said it will defend the constitutionality of the WTC cross display. The Washington D.C.-based conservative legal group plans to file a friend-to-the-court brief on behalf former 9/11 firefighter and first responder Tim Brown, who lost over 100 friends in the terrorist attacks.
"This memorial, a powerful part of the history of 9-11, serves as a constitutionally-sound reminder of the horrors that occurred nearly a decade ago," said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the ACLJ.
The 9/11 Memorial and Museum is slated to open its doors on Sept. 11, 2011 - the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
On Friday, Bloomberg said that President Barack Obama, former President George W. Bush and former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani will be joining him at the ceremony to commemorate the event.
The government officials will be permitted to read a poem or quote, according to Bloomberg. There will be no speeches at the event to keep the event "solemn" and non-political, he said.
During the ceremony, which will be held on the highway west of Ground Zero, the names of the nearly 3,000 victims – including those who died at the Pentagon and aboard United Flight 93 – will be read aloud for the first time.
The mayor also said that only family members will be allowed inside the memorial to look for the names of their loved ones, inscribed in bronze on the railings of the twin Memorial pools built in the former location of the World Trade Center.
The memorial will open to the public on Sept. 12, but online reservations for the first couple of days have already been booked, according to Bloomberg.