WASHINGTON -- Rejecting arguments from an atheist group, a federal appeals court ruled Monday that the iconic cross found at the site of the 2001 World Trade Center attacks may remain at the 9/11 Museum.
“The history of 9/11 would not be complete without including the impact the Ground Zero Cross had in inspiring rescue workers and Americans generally,” said Eric Baxter, counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, in a July 28 statement.
“Displaying the cross in a display about ‘Finding Meaning at Ground Zero’ is perfectly appropriate,” he continued.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty had filed a brief supporting the museum’s ability to display the cross, which was discovered amid piles of rubble by recovery workers in the aftermath of the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City.
Nearly 20 feet tall, the cross was formed by two intersecting metal beams from the fallen skyscrapers. It became a place of gathering and prayer for recovery workers at the site, with many people posting prayers and petitions to the structure.
Since 2011, the cross has been part of the World Trade Center Museum. In July 2011, however, American Atheists filed suit against the display, charging that the presence of the cross was offensive and marginalized them as atheists. The suit added that the presentation of the cross led to injury “in consequence of having a religious tradition not their own imposed upon them through the power of the state.”
In 2013, a district court upheld the display of the cross, saying that it had a secular purpose and did not “create excessive entanglement between the state and religion.”
American Atheists appealed that ruling, arguing that the display still “alienates non-Christians seeking to commemorate the dead, wounded and other affected persons,” and that “the overwhelmingly dominant display of the cross over any other religious symbolism is a violation of the Establishment Clause.”
But in their July 28 ruling, federal judges on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals decided that “displaying The Cross at Ground Zero to tell the story of how some people used faith to cope with the tragedy is genuine, and an objective observer would understand the purpose of the display to be secular.”
They continued, noting that the cross is included in an exhibit entitled “Finding Meaning at Ground Zero,” which includes artifacts from a variety of faith perspectives as well as non-religious pieces. Therefore, the judges said, “an objective observer would not view the display as endorsing religion generally, or Christianity specifically.”
The ruling drew praise from Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, which had also filed a brief in support of the cross remaining in the memorial museum.
“This decision is a significant constitutional victory that protects the freedom to display religiously-themed artifacts of historical or artistic significance without running afoul of the Constitution,” Sekulow said.
“This bizarre legal challenge from an atheist group was exposed for what it was – a skewed legal challenge that had no merit.”