Religion in Museums

When museums and religion collide

Cross to stay at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum

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This story appeared in Reuters on 28 July 2014.

September 11 museum allowed to display Ground Zero cross-shaped beam

 

Father Brian Jordan (L), a Franciscan Priest, blesses The World Trade Center Cross, made of intersecting steel beams found in the rubble of buildings destroyed in the September 11 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, before it is transported and lowered by a crane into an opening in the World Trade Center site below ground level where it will become part of the permanent installation exhibit in the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, in New York, July 23, 2011. REUTERS/Chip East

Father Brian Jordan (L), a Franciscan Priest, blesses The World Trade Center Cross, made of intersecting steel beams found in the rubble of buildings destroyed in the September 11 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, before it is transported and lowered by a crane into an opening in the World Trade Center site below ground level where it will become part of the permanent installation exhibit in the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, in New York, July 23, 2011. [REUTERS]

An atheist group in 2011 sued the museum and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey seeking to block the display as unconstitutional, arguing that the cross was a religious symbol that had no place in a government-sponsored institution.

In 2013, U.S. District Judge Deborah Batts dismissed the lawsuit, and a three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld her ruling in a unanimous decision on Monday.

“As a matter of law, the record compels the conclusion that appellees’ actual purpose in displaying The Cross at Ground Zero has always been secular: to recount the history of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and their aftermath,” Circuit Judge Reena Raggi wrote for the court.

Rescue workers unearthed the crossed set of girders two days after the attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people when al Qaeda members deliberately flew two hijacked jetliners into the World Trade Center’s twin towers.

The cross quickly became a symbol to hundreds of people, some of whom attended religious services held in front of it. It now stands in the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, which opened to the public in May.

A lawyer for the nonprofit group American Atheists, which filed the lawsuit, did not immediately return a call for comment. The group had argued on appeal for a plaque next to the cross commemorating the atheists who died in the attacks.

Mark Alcott, a lawyer for the museum, said his client was pleased the court had found the “actions of the museum’s curators in depicting the historical events surrounding 9/11 … to be secular in purpose and intent.”

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Leslie Adler)

 

The American Atheists, who filed the suit, posted the following statement on their website:

9/11 Cross Case Ruling Is An Example of Christian Privilege

Cranford, NJ – American Atheists is disappointed in the Second Circuit’s ruling Monday to affirm the dismissal of its case against the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey regarding the equal representation of atheists in the 9/11 National Museum.

“The 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 American Atheists President David Silverman.

“Atheists died on 9/11, members of our organization suffered in lower Manhattan on that day, and our members helped with the rescue and recovery efforts–yet we are denied equal representation in the National Museum. There are no better examples of Christian privilege and prejudice in this country than this decision and the refusal of the museum commission to work with us to honor atheists who died and suffered on 9/11,” said Silverman.

American Atheists filed the lawsuit in New York Supreme Court on July 27, 2011. The organization has not yet decided whether to appeal the ruling.

 

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