As the horror and a lingering disbelief over the events of Sept. 11, 2001 settled on the nation the day following the terrorist attack, a retired firefighter struggled through the wreckage at ground zero looking for survivors. The unimaginable devastation made it increasingly clear none would be found, and the pervasive gloom deepened with each hour.
Then the courageous volunteer stumbled on a scene forever etched in his mind. In a small clearing in the debris, a ray of sunlight penetrated the dust and struck an upright iron beam with a cross-bar: it was a sheared steel beam roughly shaped like a cross.
His photograph of the scene appeared in New York newspapers in the days to follow, and a solemn sense of reverence and even something a little like hope came to many who saw it. That extraordinary symbol of hope, now part of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, has suddenly become a center of controversy thanks to a lawsuit filed by American Atheists that seeks to unearth the cross.
The group has what can only be described as a seething hatred of memorial crosses — even from just a quick read of its legal complaint, which says the 9/11 terrorist attack was carried out by “religious fanatics in a faith-based initiative,” a gratuitous cheap shot against thousands of faith-based organizations (another target of their wrath) that minister to the needy.
This lawsuit and others like it come from a radical fringe whose claimed legal “harm” is simply that they are offended. Though nearly everyone in our society can find something that offends them, these groups go to court to say their offense should trump our shared cultural and historical values.
As an example, American Atheists filed a suit against the state of Utah and the Utah Highway Patrol Association, which is represented by the Alliance Defense Fund. The suit, which the U.S. Supreme Court has been asked to review, claims that roadside crosses memorializing state troopers who died in the line of duty offended certain atheists, and hence violated the U.S. Constitution as an “establishment” of religion — despite the fact that the crosses are paid for and maintained by families or private interests and involved no public expenditure
The absurdity of the claim should be self-evident: Who drives by such a cross and immediately sees an “establishment of Christianity” instead of a memorial? Not most Americans, 72 percent of whom favor inclusion of the 9/11 cross at the New York memorial and see no constitutional violation.
As for what the U.S. Supreme Court thinks of such cases, we have a bit of an idea from a case it recently decided in which it said that a veterans’ memorial cross in California’s Mojave Desert did not have to be removed:
The goal of avoiding governmental endorsement does not require eradication of all religious symbols in the public realm. A cross by the side of a public highway marking, for instance, the place where a state trooper perished need not be taken as a statement of governmental support for sectarian beliefs. The Constitution does not oblige government to avoid any public acknowledgment of religion’s role in society.
Lawsuits filed against veterans’ memorials reveal the agenda at work in 9/11 cross case. Such suits are filed even though the military has always used crosses in a variety of ways: the Distinguished Service Cross medal, rows of crosses in European battlefields, and even memorial crosses at Arlington National Cemetery. The largest veterans’ groups in the nation, The American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, have publicly assailed these outrageous lawsuits, and rightly so.
One notable irony of the September 11 Memorial suit is the contrasting motivations of the parties concerned. Hundreds of firefighters, paramedics, and police perished that day in selfless service. Their honor is represented in that memorial; it is an honor rightly bestowed for their courage and sacrifice. By contrast, the motives of American Atheists is entirely self-centered; it is its members’ offense that must rule the day.
The plain fact is that a memorial cross at this site does not “establish” a religion. The agenda of a few atheists should not diminish the sacrifice of the heroes and victims of 9/11. The place of this potent symbol of our shared tragedy and courage should remain for all time.