One of the nation’s leading atheist groups has lost another round in its legal battle to remove steel beams found in the shape of a cross after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, now on display at New York’s new National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum.
The Second Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled on Monday in favor of the defendants, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, arguing that the display of the “Ground Zero Cross” does not violate the separation of church and state or imply that the government has taken a position on Christianity.
The Ground Zero Cross, a 17-foot high column and crossbeam, was discovered among World Trade Center debris by construction worker Frank Silecchia two days after the Sept. 11 attacks. Moved by the artifact, he decided to show it to other workers, and the cross quickly became a symbol of hope for first-responders as well as families and friends of victims of the terrorist strike.
The group American Atheists argued that any display of the Ground Zero Cross would violate the Establishment and Equal Protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution, as well as similar protections granted in New York and New Jersey state law.
Attorney Matthew Dowd represented one of the defendants, Franciscan priest Fr. Brian Jordan, who blessed the artifact in the weeks following the attacks and began to conduct services at the cross site for those of all faiths as the clean-up and rescue operation proceeded around him.
Mr. Dowd called Monday’s ruling a “resounding victory” for the museum and for all who found hope through the artifact.
“They’re allowed to display the cross without it being whitewashed in a way that the American Atheists wanted it to be,” Mr. Dowd said. “It’s a pretty straightforward opinion. It takes a common-sense approach that just because something has a religious connotation … it doesn’t require that the First Amendment says it should be excluded from a museum.”
American Atheists President David Silverman called the decision a disappointment, saying “the court relied on the words of religious persons, ignoring statements to the contrary from atheists, that a Christian cross is comforting to a non-religious population. The opposite is true.”
Organization officials said they haven’t decided whether or not to appeal Monday’s ruling.
The case initially came before the New York Supreme Court in July 2011, nearly three years before the museum opened. It was moved to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York a month later.
The district court ruled in favor of the Port Authority, and the atheist group subsequently appealed the decision in 2013. The appeals court heard the case in March.
In its appeal, Atheist Americans conceded that the Ground Zero Cross is a historic artifact worthy of being in the museum, but argued that a plaque should be on display commemorating the lives of atheists who lost their lives on 9/11. The court found that the museum had not violated the Constitution or discriminated against atheists by not funding a symbol or plaque for such victims.
The museum clearly defines its purpose for being on display, in that it’s used to “tell the story of how some people used faith to cope with the tragedy,” Judge Renna Raggi wrote for the court.
An observer of the museum exhibit would not “think the primary effect of displaying The Cross at Ground Zero to be conveying a message to atheists that they are somehow disfavored ‘outsiders,’ while religious believers are favored ‘insiders,’ in the political community,” the judge concluded.
The cross is currently part of an exhibit entitled “Finding Meaning at Ground Zero,” which includes nonreligious and religious artifacts alike. The museum opened to the public in May.
The American Center for Law and Justice heralded the decision as a victory, saying “we are thankful for this victory for the Constitution, our national heritage, and for common sense.” The center, which filed an amicus brief in the case, said it expected a likely appeal by American Atheists.