Museums, beware: The atheists want to censor your collections.
That is the essential argument of the organization American Atheists before a federal appellate court in its continuing litigation over the so-called World Trade Center Cross. The cross is a piece of fused metal that became an instant defining image of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and a source of solace for people trying to understand the tragedy. In particular, the cross became a site for daily reflection for rescue workers, volunteers, survivors and others in the days following Sept. 11, 2001.
The atheists want to erase that history.
The cross is being included in the 9/11 Memorial Museum, along with thousands of other objects found at the site. The museum makes no endorsement of Christianity by including the cross, of course, or of any other religion. It is merely recognizing the cross’ historical importance during an important moment of U.S. history. To exclude the cross would actually provide a misleading account of what occurred at the World Trade Center.
For American Atheists, however, even acknowledging the historical fact of the cross and its meaning to thousands of New Yorkers is too much. First, the atheists sued Franciscan Father Brian Jordan, the priest who offered Sunday Mass at the cross for weeks following the attacks. The atheists accused him of somehow acting as an agent of the state and through his actions causing Christianity to be “endorsed” as some kind of state religion.
The court wisely rejected that argument and removed Father Jordan from the suit. The atheists have continued their suit against the museum itself for continuing to display the cross.
As the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty wrote in its brief on the case, "Every court to consider the issue of whether a religious object may be displayed in a publicly funded museum has adopted the view that such displays are constitutionally permissible."
American Atheists has appealed to a federal appellate court. A brief filed on behalf of Father Jordan (acting as a friend of the court this time) follows the atheist position to its logical conclusion: No religious artifacts can be permitted in government museums or else the government will have endorsed a specific religion or religion in general. This is nonsense.
As Father Jordan’s lawyers state, “The Establishment Clause does not prohibit a government from displaying religious objects in a museum”; to do what the atheists want would “rewrite the history of Ground Zero and ignore the Founding Fathers’ directives embodied” in the Constitution. There are plenty of religious items in the National Gallery of Art, the national parks and even the halls of Congress, where a statue of [former Mormon leader] Brigham Young sits as the “American Moses.”
So, if the court follows the clear law, the atheists will lose, and the cross will remain as a symbol of hope. And surely the atheists know their lawsuit was a long shot from the beginning. What, then, was the point of dragging a Franciscan priest and the museum into this litigation, diverting taxpayer money that might otherwise been better spent on the WTC site itself?
American Atheists and other anti-religion organizations want to make us comfortable with the notion that there is something wrong with the natural impulse of many people to turn to God in times of great sadness or joy. For American Atheists, this natural, common reaction should be impermissible, and if it occurs, the state should put those events into an Orwellian memory hole.
In bringing this case, the atheists have tried a new tactic in their arguments before the appellate court: If the WTC cross won’t be excluded, they argue, why not give “equal access” to atheist symbols as well? This argument appeals to Americans’ deep sense of fairness, they contend, but it is a deception.
Like the HHS contraceptive mandate’s appeal to “equality,” the atheists’ argument is meant to dilute religious imagery. It also misses the purpose of a historical exhibition such as the 9/11 Memorial Museum. Inventing “atheist” symbols to place along with objects that truly had a religious impact is Soviet-style history, and the court should reject this tactic to de-legitimize religious imagery.
Religion is at the heart of the human experience, and trying to obscure it or falsify history to hide it is untrue, both to our national experience and the Constitution.
Gerald J. Russello is editor of the University Bookman, an online journal.