ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP) — An atheist group has filed a lawsuit to prevent cross-shaped steel beams from being included in a museum dedicated to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on the World Trade Center towers. The group contends including the cross will violate the principle of the separation of church and state.
Two days after the horrific attack on the iconic towers located in the heart of New York City, a first responder searching for bodies discovered two steel beams broken in such a way that they formed an almost perfect cross.
“I was already working 12 hours. I was quite weary and the cross comforted me,” said Frank Silecchia, the man who found the cross, according to news reports.
The 20-foot-tall cross was lifted from the rubble and placed in the center of where recovery efforts were being handled. It became a rallying point for first responders and has already been installed in the new museum ahead of its May opening, the Religion News Service reported.
The group American Atheists says, “the cross is a part of religious history and its presence on public property violates the separation of church and state,” The Washington Times reported.
The organization’s website describes the group as follows: “Since 1963, American Atheists has been the premier organization fighting for the civil liberties of atheists and the total, absolute separation of government and religion.”
“We are worried about the alienation being suffered by atheists. This cross screams Christianity, but there were perhaps 500 or 1,000 people who died in this tragedy who were not Christians,” Edwin Kagin, the group’s national legal director told a New York federal appeals court, according to the Times.
“It’s dangerous for this to be in a government-backed display,” Kagin added. “This is about an endorsement of Christianity. What is wrong with having a plaque that says atheists died here, too’?” he asked.
With all due respect to Mr. Kagin, his argument is not correct. The cross is not being included in the museum as a memorial to the Christians who perished in the terror attacks. The cross found in the rubble is being included as part of the story of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the recovery that followed.
“Mark Alcott, representing the museum, which is run by a foundation and receives public funding, said, ‘The curators decided to place this object in the museum because they believe it was an important part of the history of this story. Rescue workers took comfort in this remnant of the building structure and they prayed to it as a religious object,'” London’s newspaper The Telegraph reported on its website.
“But there is a difference between displaying an artifact of historical significance and saying we want you [the public] to bless it — museum-goers understand that distinction,” Alcott added.
Alcott is correct in more ways than one. Museumgoers do have the ability to discern between the display of an artifact that may viewed as a religious symbol and the expectation that it be accepted as such and, in essence, honored or blessed. So too, do citizens of the United States.
The first clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” In general, laws either mandate or prohibit activity. In other words, laws indicate you must do something or you can’t do something.
Put simply, the First Amendment says that Congress shall create no law that forces a citizen to embrace any particular religion. Said another way, lawmakers cannot establish a state church people must attend.
Additionally, the First Amendment declares that the government cannot enact legislation that would forbid the pursuit of particular religion. Congress cannot outlaw a religion.
The Supreme Court has ruled the government can regulate religious behavior. However, in order to do so, the government must show a compelling interest why it should be allowed to regulate a particular practice.
The regulation of a religious practice by the government has been a very rare occurrence in the history of the United States.
Displaying a cross created when the towers came crashing down on Sept. 11 in a museum dedicated to the event in no way represents a law establishing Christianity. What is the compelling interest for keeping it out of the museum?
Shortly after Thomas Jefferson was elected president in 1801, a group of Baptists, primarily from western Connecticut, wrote America’s third chief executive and expressed concern about the issue of religious liberty.
The Danbury Baptist Association’s letter expressed doubt that the First Amendment was strong enough to protect religious freedom. Jefferson responded ensuring them it represented a bulwark that would protect the church from the state.
In part, Jefferson wrote, “… I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State….”
The purpose of the First Amendment, according to one of America’s founders, was to protect the church from incursion by the government and not vice versa. It was certainly not meant to keep a relevant artifact, which is also considered a religious symbol, from being displayed in a museum.
The appeals court is expected to make a decision in several months.
Kelly Boggs is a weekly columnist for Baptist Press, director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention’s office of public affairs, and editor of the Baptist Message (www.baptistmessage.com), newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).