Atheist activists have a knack for picking riveting, infuriating and seemingly never-ending battles. During the Christmas season, they aim for nativities on public property and at the end of every school year, their targets set on commencement prayers.
While these battles have become all-too-familiar, there's one showdown brewing that distinguishes itself from the rest -- atheists' demands that a cross found in the rubble following the September 11, 2001 attacks not be included in a museum that is being planned to commemorate the lives lost during the tragedy.
American Atheists (AA), a group working to advance the secular cause, has been leading the charge against the Ground Zero cross since July 2011, when the organization first filed suit against it. TheBlaze's Meredith Jessup has explored this issue, in detail, on TheBlaze Blog, where she explained AA's main arguments against the cross' inclusion.
"The atheists’ suit claims that by including the cross in a museum on public property, the government is unconstitutionally endorsing a religion," Jessup writes. "It also asserts that the mere presence of the cross would result in emotional — and possibly even physical — injuries among atheists who will feel anxious and excluded."
Jessup isn't exaggerating. The organization's complaint reads, in part:
The plaintiffs, and each of them, have suffered, are suffering, and will continue to suffer damages, both physical and emotional, from the existence of the challenged cross. Named plaintiffs have suffered, inter alia, dyspepsia, symptoms of depression, headaches, anxiety, and mental pain and anguish from the knowledge that they are made to feel officially excluded from the ranks of citizens who were directly injured by the 9/11 attack and the lack of acknowledgement of the more than 1,000 non- Christian individuals who were killed at the World Trade Center.
David Silverman, president of AA, has been the most vocal opponent of the cross' presence in the museum. By presenting the 17-foot symbol that was formed by T-beams when the buildings fell, he has said that non-believers would essentially feel excluded when they visit the museum.
"This case is about inclusion, it is not about the elimination of religion, it is about the inclusion of everyone," Silverman maintains.
His main arguments, of course, hinge on the fact that the cross represents a religious symbol. Because the museum is backed by public money, AA argues that no religious exhibits or items should be present. But the conservative legal group Liberty Council disagrees with the atheist activists' views on the matter. A press release that was sent out by the group earlier today reads, in part:
The president of American Atheists, David Silverman, contends that atheists are experiencing horrible physical reactions after seeing the rubble cross, such as “inter alia, dyspepsia, symptoms of depression, headaches, anxiety, and mental pain and anguish.” The atheists claim that the cross makes them “feel officially excluded from the ranks of citizens who were directly injured by the 9/11 attack.”
“Atheists groups would like to see a total collapse of the free exercise of religion in America,” said Mat Staver, Founder and Chairman of Liberty Counsel. “The cross is a symbol of hope amidst the total destruction at Ground Zero. The lawsuit is further evidence of the war on Christianity in America. The 9/11 cross survived the terrorist attack by Muslim extremists, and it will survive the cultural attack by radical secularists.”
According to CNN, the museum's planners have defended the cross, saying, "the 9/11 Museum is an independent nonprofit corporation. Its curators’ decisions to display particular objects, such as the Artifact, in the Museum are not state actions to which Constitutional protections apply."
Interestingly, even if these protections do apply, the museum contents that "there is no legal authority for the proposition that a museum is prohibited from displaying an item with historical, cultural or artistic significance merely because that item also has religious significance.” Silverman, of course, rejects this notion.
"The argument that this is not a religious symbol is asinine and arrogant," the atheist leader exclaims. "They want 9/11 to appear to be an attack on Christianity, and it was not."
These sentiments have been rejected by many outside of the non-theist atheist realm, particularly those who believe that the cross, regardless of its religious connotations, gave peace to people in the wake of a horrific and historic terror attack. Jessup explains her own personal confusion over the debacle:
The World Trade Center cross was not a symbol constructed by men using debris found at Ground Zero following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Instead, the “cross” itself is a piece of debris found at the site — a group of steel beams which resembles the proportions of a Christian cross.
So why the outrage? The cross symbol only holds significance for those who believe in what it stands for. In other words, to an atheist, the steel “cross” wreckage should represent nothing but the tragedy of 9/11. It does, however, mean much more to those who believe in the cross as a symbol of Christ.
As a Christian, I cannot force an atheist to view the cross as a symbol of faith. Why then do atheists think they should be able to force me and my fellow Christians to view a symbol of our faith as nothing but debris amidst the rubble?
The debate over the cross, though, is only one of the issues surrounding the museum that has yet to open 11 years after the tragedy struck. In addition to the cross debate, a larger dispute over funding is unfolding between New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie -- a fight that is delaying the museum's progress.
Not coincidentally, Bloomberg and Christie are two of the individuals named in the AA lawsuit. CNN legal expert Jeffrey Toobin calls the atheists' case "absurd" and says that the odds that the cross will be removed "are literally zero." Still, Silverman's group forges on in its non-theistic crusade to strip faith out of the 9/11 Museum.