There’s a special street sign going up in New York City to honor a group of firefighters who sacrificed their lives to save others on 9/11. Not only were they heroes, they were among the first firefighters to arrive on the scene that morning. There were seven of them and, after they died, they were collectively known as “Seven in Heaven.”
And that’s how city officials are memorializing them:
So it raises a really difficult question for some atheists: Is this something worth responding to?
Let’s be honest here. Nothing we can say or do will make us look good. If we tell the truth (“There’s no evidence that Heaven exists”), no one will care. If we talk about the legal aspects (“This may be a case of church/state entanglement”), the response from most people will be, “You’re kidding, right?” If we suggest a different name (“Remember the Seven from 9/11”), people will say we’re being disrespectful to the firefighters’ memory.
There are arguments against having this sign, but the response to any of them is almost universal: What do you have against the firefighters who gave their lives for us? At that point, you’re going to lose the debate regardless of how right you are.
We’ll get attention for it if we say/do anything — we already have — but none of it will make us look good. It’s a far cry from billboard messages that might make readers feel uncomfortable but still make an important point.
With all that in mind, the media is now reporting that the New York City Atheists may be filing a lawsuit over the street sign:
“It’s just like product placement,” said Ken Bronstein, the President of the New York City Atheists.
“We are not against honoring those who died on 9/11, but we are arguing the word heaven should not be used. It has religious connotations,” continued Bronstein.
Now the NYC Atheists say they are poised to sue the City to get a name change. “It’s a whole conspiracy trying prove we are a Christian nation and imprinting our culture and our vocabulary,” complained Bronstein.
That can’t be right… suing over *this*? It’s a PR disaster in the making.
I have to do something about this… what can I do…
*Looks at phone*
*Finds the number for NYC Atheists.*
I ended up speaking to Jane Everhart, director of communications for NYC Atheists.
Is that article true?
She tells me they’re not actually “poised to sue.” That makes it sound like everything is already in motion, which isn’t true.
So are you going to sue?
They are considering it. They’re giving it serious thought. But they haven’t actually taken steps outside of a few consultations with lawyers.
But you know this is going to be a PR disaster, right? You’ll never be able to convince the public that “Seven in Heaven Way” is promoting a faith.
She strongly disagrees.
Well, tell me what good will come from you suing…
She tells me I can quote her on this:
The way you change the laws is the way Madalyn Murray O’Hair did [when she sued to get mandatory prayer out of public schools]. You have to sue to change the laws. Suing isn’t fun. It costs money. It takes time… but the way to get really tough laws changed is to sue.
We have been inspired by the civil rights movement and by the gay rights movement. And the progress they have made has always been by changing the laws.
I have something I put at the bottom of my emails. It says, “Power concedes nothing without a demand” (by Frederick Douglass).
But what if you lose a lawsuit and it sets a precedent that could hurt us when it comes to more egregious church/state violations?
At that point, someone else from the media calls her and she has to go.
So there you have it. There’s a chance NYC Atheists may sue over this. And they’re really not concerned with any PR ramifications. On principle, they may have a point, but this particular case is going to be much harder for atheists to defend (in the battle of public opinion) than other church/state violations.