Atheists Appeal Decision to Allow WTC 'Cross' in 9/11 Museum

Kenneth Bronstein, president of NYC Atheists, Inc., leads a press conference before the start of the atheists' appeal on the inclusion of the World Trade Center "cross" in the National September 11 Museum. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Mar. 07, 2014

Atheists were back in federal court on Thursday March 6, hoping to reverse a lower court's decision to allow the National September 11 Museum to display the World Trade Center “cross” when it opens in May.

The group, American Atheists, tried to convince a three-judge panel the the two crossed steel beams, found in the Trade Center debris, is a religious relic that violates the First Amendment right to Church-State separation.

Almost immediately after  the 17-foot-high object was discovered, it became a shrine of sorts and a source of spiritual strength to many who labored in the rubble after 9/11. Later it was moved to nearby St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church. In 2011, to the dismay of atheist groups, the cross was moved again—this time to the museum.

That move set off the suit against the site’s owner, the Port Authority, and against the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation. The plaintiffs claimed that the cross must either be removed or all other religious groups—including groups like themselves—be given symbolic recognition.

Last March, U.S. District Judge Deborah A. Batts sided with the defendants, saying that the cross serves a historical purpose. She noted in her opinion that many workers turned to the cross for comfort and as a way to cope with the devastation they witnessed during the 9/11 rescue and recovery effort. “Simply because one object, which is one component of a secular exhibition is religious does not engender endorsement,” she wrote.

During the U.S. Court of Appeals hearing on March 6, Gerard E. Lynch, one of three judges who listened to the arguments, seemed to echo Batts’s opinion, noting that religious expression was part of the story of Sept. 11.

“Whether or not they are being endorsed,” the judge said, “these are things that took place and are being described as part of the history.”

But attorney Edwin Kagin, representing the atheists, argued that the artifact “screams Christianity.”

“The overwhelming message of this artifact—we’ll call it a cross—is that Christianity is the predominant religion of the United States,” Kagin said.

Kagin appeared to back away from the atheists’ call to return the cross to St. Peter’s. Rather, he said, atheists deserve equal treatment.

“Are you asking us to say that the display, no matter what else they do, violates the First Amendment?” Judge Reena Raggi asked Kagin.

“Specifically, what we need is an object of some sort, even a plaque that says to the world, ‘Atheists died here too,’” Kagin replied.

“So the relief that you’re looking for is some sort of plaque or other acknowledgement,” Raggi said. “That’s it?”

“That’s it,” Kagin replied.

The judge seemed puzzled by the suggestion of a plaque.

“If the cross is being displayed because of its historic significance, a plaque that had no historic significance wouldn’t seem to have the same claim to equal treatment,” Raggi said. “What am I missing?”

Mark H. Alcott, the attorney for the museum said that, unlike the suggested plaque, the cross tells an important part of the 9/11 story.

“Every other exhibit has a historic connection to the events of September 11,” Alcott said. “That’s our mission, to tell that truth. There’s no plaque that had anything to do with the history of September 11, so they’re asking us to transform this from a history museum to a make-believe recital that will ease the sensibilities of some.”

Before the hearing began, about a dozen atheists held a press conference outside the courthouse, some displaying signs that read “Take the ‘Miracle Cross’ out of the 9/11 Museum.” They were holding fast to their demand that the cross be moved.

“What we’re saying is this miracle cross should be taken out of the World Trade Center and moved back into St. Peter’s Church,” Kenneth Bronstein, president of NYC Atheists, Inc., said, standing before the TV cameras. “That’s our position and that’s what we think should go on.”

But Bronstein insisted that “bashing religion” was not the group’s aim.

“We sympathize with the people that died there, the families and their friends,” Bronstein said. “We are doing this because this is strictly an issue of separation of church and state.”