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Ground Zero Cross Can Stay in Museum, Court Rules

Ground zero – en

© 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.

“We argued from the beginning that this was a flawed legal challenge designed to re-write history and eliminate a powerful historical artifact,” said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative legal firm that filed a brief in support of keeping the cross. “This bizarre legal challenge from an atheist group was exposed for what it was—a skewed legal challenge that had no merit.”

In its opinion, the court noted that the cross is a part of exhibition entitled “Finding Meaning at Ground Zero,” and described how the Ground Zero Cross was first discovered:

Two days into this grim task, on September 13, 2001, construction worker Frank Silecchia spotted in the rubble near 6 World Trade Center a large column and cross‐beam, which gave him the impression of a Latin cross. Taking hope from what he perceived to be a religious symbol, Silecchia brought the column and cross‐beam to the attention of other rescue workers, many of whom shared his reaction. A few weeks later, on October 3, 2001, volunteers lifted the 17‐foot column and cross‐beam from the wreckage and erected it onto a platform at the West 
Street edge of the recovery site.  The following day, almost one hundred people gathered when Father Brian Jordan, a Franciscan priest who had been blessing victim remains at Ground Zero, blessed the artifact. Soon after, Father Jordan, who also had been offering Masses for workers at Ground Zero, began to conduct such services at the cross site. Persons of different faiths, or of none at all, were welcome and offered communion.  The Cross at Ground Zero thus came to be viewed not simply as a Christian symbol, but also as a symbol of hope and healing for all 

The opinion quoted the panel for this part of the exhibition:   

Workers at Ground Zero struggled to come to terms with the horrific circumstances in which they found themselves.    Some sought to counter the sense of utter destruction by holding on to 
something recognizable, whether a metal bolt or shard of glass or a marble salvaged from the debris.    Others, grappling with the absence of survivors and the regular recovery of human remains, found purpose by forging relationships with relatives of a particular victim, carrying a photograph or memorial card to bolster their resolve.

Some questioned how such a crime could have been perpetrated in the name of religion, and wrestled with how a benevolent god would permit the slaughter of thousands of innocent people.  Many sought comfort in spiritual counseling, religious symbols, and the solace of ceremonies and ritual.   

Some workers turned to symbols of patriotism to reinforce a sense of commitment and community, hanging flags across the site.  

American flags reinforced a sense of commitment and community, and the repeated promise of “God Bless America” inspired a sense of duty.    The words “Never Forget” commanded a pledge of unswerving dedication.

The exhibit also contains this plaque:

The Cross at Ground Zero:  Icon of [L]oss, Symbol of Hope

Recovered by the New York City Building Construction and Trades Council, Courtesy of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey

This intersecting steel column and cross beam was found inside the rubble of 6 World Trade Center on the evening of September 13, 2001.  Upon entering the area with members of a search and rescue team, construction worker Frank Silecchia saw this 17‐foot tall column, its horizontal arm draped with a heat‐infused piece of air‐
conditioning vent, standing in a field of debris.  

Moved by the spiritual presence he felt, Silecchia brought the cross shaped steel to the attention of other workers and members of the clergy.

Perceived of as a religious cross by many who saw it, the steel fragment was relocated to the edge of the site near West Street on October 3, 2001, increasing its visibility and access to both workers and visiting family members.  The next day, hundreds working on the recovery attended a ceremonial blessing of the cross by Father Brian Jordan, a Franciscan priest ministering to the Ground Zero community.

Individuals of many faiths and belief systems saw the cross as a symbol of hope, faith, and healing.  It didn’t matter what religion you were, what faith you believed in . . .  It was life, it was survival, it was the future. . . .  I would say that it represents the human spirit.    That it represents good over evil.  That it represents how people will care for each other at the worst moment in their life.    How people can put aside their differences for the greater good.

Richard Sheirer, former Commissioner of New York City’s Office of Emergency Management, speaking in 2010 about the Cross at Ground Zero

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