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Ground Zero Cross Can Stay in Museum, Court Rules

© michaelfarnham

John Burger - published on 08/01/14

Artifact is part of the historical record of 9/11.

For years it held up a floor in the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, and for many months it held up broken spirits devastated by the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy.

Now, a federal court has upheld the right of the museum that documents 9/11 to include the “Ground Zero Cross,” a 17-foot section of column and cross beam, in its exhibit, denying the group American Atheists their bid to have it excluded.

American Atheists argued that displaying the cross, particularly without any accompanying plaque or similar item acknowledging that atheists were among those who lost their lives or who participated in ensuing rescue efforts, violates the Constitution’s Establishment and Equal Protection Clauses.

But a three-judge panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals issued an order on Monday rejecting that effort, affirming the important role that religion plays in society. 

"I’m gratified by the decision, and I would ask that any other fellow clergyperson stand up for what he or she believes in, because the atheists will get very aggressive on this cross issue around the country," said Franciscan Father Brian Jordan, who offered regular Masses for construction and rescue workers at the site where the cross was erected.

American Atheists filed a federal suit in 2012 claiming the display at the National 9/11 Museum, built with a mix of public and private funds, was unconstitutional. The group said its members suffered from both physical and emotional damages from the presence of the beamed cross, resulting in headaches, indigestion and mental pain.

The atheist group filed an appeal after a lower court dismissed the lawsuit, shifting the focus from the cross to asking for an added plaque that would say something like “atheists died, too.”

“This is an enormously important and common-sense ruling,” said Eric Baxter, Counsel for the Becket Fund, who filed a brief supporting the Museum’s right to display the cross.

The Becket Fund is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions.

“The Court draws an important distinction. Even though the Ground Zero Cross is unquestionably a religious symbol, and holds deep religious meaning for many people—particularly those who found hope and inspiration in its discovery—the government does not violate the Establishment Clause by recognizing and educating others about the actual role played by religion in our history and culture,” Baxter said.

An observer would understand that the cross was also an inclusive symbol for any persons seeking hope and comfort in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, federal Judge Reena Raggi wrote in the court’s decision.

“Such an observer would not understand the effect of displaying an artifact with such an inclusive past in a Museum devoted to the history of the September 11 attacks to be the divisive one of promoting religion over nonreligion,” Raggi wrote. “Nor would he 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 opinion cited a 1984 Supreme Court decision, Lynch v. Donnelly, which said that religious holiday displays, analogous to “religious paintings in governmentally supported museums” do not endorse religion.

The Ground Zero cross was found by rescue workers two days after the terrorist attacks and is part of the 1,000 artifacts in a 100,000-square-foot underground museum. American Atheists can appeal to the entire court or ask the three-judge panel to reconsider its decision before it can file a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court.

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