The “Cross at Ground Zero” stays, ruled a federal appeals court. A group of atheists had brought their case for its removal after being dismissed in a Manhattan Federal Court. The “Cross,” which is in fact the remains of prefabricated iron cross beams, was initially discovered by an ironworker helping clear rubble, on Sept 13, a couple days after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack against the World Trade Center.
The atheists’ contention was that including a religious symbol, which, as they say, “gave the impression of a Latin cross, a symbol associated with Christianity,” was unconstitutional, “particularly without any accompanying plaque or similar item acknowledging that atheists were among those” deeply affected by the 9/11 tragedy.
The three-judge panel of the Second Circuit Court denied that the “genuine historical artifact” was a symbol of Christianity, but that it was a “symbol of hope and healing for all persons.”
Historically, those who discovered it were reminded of Jesus and his cross, and gathered to it as a shrine, to pray and leave messages of pain and hope. Rev. Brian Jordan, in particular, a Franciscan priest, held regular Mass at the cross during the rescue effort.
Whether or not a crucifix is a “symbol of hope and healing for all persons,” Silecchia’s take on the matter was clearly pious:
“Faith won over atheism,” he told the Daily News Monday. “I’m kind of proud because that was my initial goal: to help ease the burden of humanity. All I can do is thank God for answering my prayer.”
Rev. Brian Jordan also characterized it as a “Symbol of hope…a symbol of faith.”
Despite that those so moved by the cross were predominately Christians, referencing God, prayer, faith, and so forth, the judges said that “It did not intentionally discriminate against a group of atheists who sued to have it removed…With this recognition, a reasonable observer would view the primary effect of displaying the cross at ground zero, amid hundreds of others (mostly secular) artifacts, to be ensuring historical completeness, not promoting religion.”
There is also the consideration that the 9/11 attacks were religiously motivated, in terms that some call “an attack of Islam against a Christian nation.” While the terms of such a claim could be harshly criticized as misleading oversimplifications, it explains why some people find this sort of artifact a fitting response to an attack by devout members of an extremist religious group.
David Silverman, president of the American Atheists, claimed to be “disappointed” by the decision, and is even considering appealing the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The cultural wars of who gets to determine what constitutes our history, what is included, what is not, strikes him as a fundamental issue.
“The [appellate] court relied on the words of religious persons, ignoring statements to the contrary from atheists, that a Christian cross is comforting to the non-religious population. The opposite is true,” said Silverman in a statement on Monday, as reported by the NY Daily News. “There is no better examples of Christian privilege and prejudice in this country than their decision and refusal of the museum commission to work with us to honor atheists who died and suffered on 9/11.”
Perhaps he wishes that atheists had made some sort of shrine too? That the age-old symbol was hoisted and imposed on the 9/11 event may or not be comforting to atheists, but it became a relevant part of history. If a group of atheists had produced a similar historical artifact, and it were excluded, their case would be more certain.
Though some have argued that the museum would not have preserved an Islamic symbol, if it happened to materialize out of the rubble, nevertheless, it would have to do more than exist: it would have had to play a role in how 9/11 unfolded. This the cross managed to do.