Symbols matter. What we remember and how a society explains and understands tragedy is of crucial importance. A federal court has recently held that the government can acknowledge the importance of Christianity in reacting to Sept. 11 and that a cross can stand at Ground Zero.
As we have previously reported, Franciscan Father Brian Jordan was sued for violating the First Amendment for his efforts to preserve the so-called World Trade Center Cross. The cross — a cruciform piece of metal discovered in the ruins of the Twin Towers after Sept. 11, 2001 — quickly became for many a meaningful symbol of God’s presence among the wreckage. It has long been considered a historic artifact from the World Trade Center site, and, in 2011, the Port Authority, a quasi-governmental agency, donated the cross to the museum being built at Ground Zero.
During and after the discovery of the cross, Father Jordan and others conducted worship services in front of it, and it was blessed during those services. Indeed, for five years before the donation, the cross was housed at St. Peter’s Church in Lower Manhattan.
The case was resolved in the priest’s favor — the plaintiffs made the ridiculous argument that he was acting as an agent of the state when he blessed the cross — but the controversy continued.
Last July, the reverence for the cross, and the symbolism it represented, caused the American Atheists Inc. to sue the memorial foundation and others, allegedly for violating the (constitutionally imaginary) “wall of separation” between church and state. Having the cross at the site, the atheists argued, amounted to an endorsement of religion in general, and Christianity in particular. Therefore, the placement of the cross was unconstitutional.
The case of the cross represents one example of the larger fight over religious liberty, which includes the HHS cases as well. In both instances, the goal of the forces campaigning against religious liberty is to restrict religion’s place in the public sphere and in national memory. Those who control the past control the present, according to George Orwell.
One way to control the past in a secular direction is to deny religion’s large historic role. For the atheists and their allies, the ultimate goal is essentially to eliminate references to Christians and the importance of Christianity to Americans. If successful, it then becomes easier to downplay Christianity’s formative role in Western civilization and religion’s importance more generally.
One sees a glimpse of this ideology at work in cultural projects as well, like the recent Jackie Robinson movie 42. The film unfairly downplays the strong religious beliefs of Robinson, as well as those of his supporter Branch Rickey (whose deep Christian faith earned him the nickname “The Mahatma”).
In an opinion released at the end of March, the court rightly dismissed the atheists’ case and indeed made short work of their arguments. The court found that the cross and its presence at the memorial did not “endorse” religion and its presence at the memorial in no way violated the First Amendment.
The court considered a number of factors to reach its conclusion. It first determined that the mere inclusion of the cross in a museum commemorating a national tragedy does not mean the government “endorses” that particular religion or means to exclude those of other faiths. The judge’s opinion noted that, “because a reasonable observer would be aware of the history and context of the cross and the museum — especially given that the cross ... will be accompanied by placards explaining its meaning and the reason for its inclusion, and surrounded by secular artifacts — no reasonable observer would view the (cross) as endorsing Christianity.”
In other words, religious objects that are significant to an historical event can be displayed without running afoul of the Constitution.
Similarly, the court dismissed the atheists’ argument that placing the cross at the museum “entangled” the state with religious belief — and for the same reason. Any rational person understands why the cross is included in the museum, which is displayed in an exhibit explicitly about how those affected by the Sept. 11 attacks responded. Some turned to patriotism or working with victims; others turned to faith. The state can acknowledge such facts.
In a contemporary culture where so much effort has been devoted to excluding religion, this decision is a welcome bit of good news for people of faith.
Gerald J. Russello’s edition of Christopher Dawson’s Religion and Culture
is due out this August from The Catholic University of America Press.