In the weeks before the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, the National September 11 Memorial and Museum on the site of the former Twin Towers is taking shape in Lower Manhattan — and one item slated for the permanent exhibition is drawing particular, and sometimes negative, notice. American Atheists, a nonprofit organization, has filed suit against the inclusion in the memorial of a 17-foot-tall steel cross — two construction beams — that was discovered in the rubble of the World Trade Center. It became a symbol of survival for many Christians and was displayed until recently at nearby St. Peter’s Church. A small part of the Memorial’s budget comes from state and city sources.
“An ugly piece of wreckage,” said American Atheists’ Jane Everhart. “A powerful remembrance,” said Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice, which is backing the cross’ placement. The Jewish Week spoke with Marc Stern, associate general counsel of the American Jewish Committee, which has taken no official position on the dispute.
Q: As an attorney, do you consider the “World Trade Center Cross” in the memorial to be legal, or a violation of the Constitution?
A: The constitutionality will in large measure depend on the context in which the memorial displays it. Will it be displayed in ways that suggest that this cross is a religious object, which the government thinks should be venerated? If so, its display would be unconstitutional. Or will it be displayed in way that highlights its historical significance to the first responders? If that is the case, and the context is serious, not a pretext for a religious display, then the cross would be displayed constitutionally.
Do you consider the cross to be a Christian symbol or a neutral historical artifact?
Obviously, a cross is a Christian religious symbol, despite periodic absurd efforts to deny the obvious. Thus, a large cross in a public space does not lose its sectarian religious character because Congress — in its collective wisdom — pronounced it a war memorial. Neither is a cross a universal symbol of death, as Justice [Antonin] Scalia once suggested to a Jewish lawyer arguing a case in the Supreme Court. That lawyer promptly pointed out that no member of his family had ever been buried under a cross. That being said, it does not follow that every display of a cross is intended to send a religious message — think of a Jeweled medieval cross displayed in a museum to illustrate medieval craftsmanship.
Do you understand the critics’ position?
For too long, believers have slighted atheists and denied them their place in public discussions and places. Just as Jews object to official display of Christian religious symbols as suggesting that Jews are second-class citizens, atheists… understandably see states’ embrace of religious beliefs as official condemnation of their (non) belief.
Do Jewish relatives of the 9/11 victims — or Muslims or atheists or any other non-Christians — have reason to take offense by a cross at such a national memorial?
It depends. If the cross is displayed as a silent memorial for all those who were murdered at the World Trade Center site, then it would be right for persons of other faiths to be offended. If the cross does not carry that message — but simply demonstrates how rescue workers reacted to its presence, offense might be out of place, though I would certainly understand if non-Christian survivors and victims’ families felt uncomfortable with the display.
First, there was opposition to a mosque being built near the site of the fallen Twin Towers. Now, opposition to a cross at the memorial. Are these cases, and the opposition to them, similar? Is the memorializing of the U.S. tragedy increasing religious intolerance — or intolerance of others’ religious expressions in this country?
If there is any common denominator about the disputes, it is not one about the larger degree of religious tolerance. Rather, it is a debate about efforts to capture a place of huge civic importance for particular religious faiths. The effort to exclude the mosque near Ground Zero and the defense of the cross by the same people is reasonably interpreted as an effort to portray the attack as Islam vs. Christianity. That is by far too simplistic a tale, and therefore ought to be avoided. And to the extent that telling blames all Muslims for the acts of a handful, it is an intolerable imposition of group guilt.