More than a year ago, U.S. District Judge Deborah Batts tossed out American Atheists’ lawsuit against the National September 11 Memorial & Museum and its display of a 17-foot-tall steel beam cross.
If you need some background, AA had sued because they felt the museum was supposed to honor the victims of the tragedy — and we all know atheists, non-Christians, and Christians died in the tragedy.
When steel beams fell that day, a couple of them criss-crossed, as you might expect, and some Christians took that to mean a sign from God. (Why God didn’t intervene earlier that day has yet to be determined). If a church wanted to display that particular cross, American Atheists said, they had every right to do so, but for a historical museum to have a display with the cross suggested to them that Christian victims were being treated as different from (and better than) other victims. AA offered to donate a symbol of their own for inclusion in the memorial, but the museum curators rejected their donation because it wasn’t a historical artifact (which is true).
Batts wrote that the cross and its accompanying panels of text “helps demonstrate how those at ground zero coped with the devastation they witnessed during the rescue and recovery effort.” She called its purpose “historical and secular” and noted that it will be housed at the museum in the “Finding Meaning at Ground Zero” section with placards explaining its meaning and the reason for its inclusion. It also will be surrounded by secular artifacts.
“No reasonable observer would view the artifact as endorsing Christianity,” the judge said. She added that the museum’s creators “have not advanced religion impermissibly, and the cross does not create excessive entanglement between the state and religion.” She said the plaintiffs also failed to allege any form of intentional discrimination or cite any adverse or unequal treatment on the basis of their religious beliefs.
Batts was using the same argument other judges have used to allow Christians to display nativity scenes on government property — by itself, it’s not allowed, but if its surrounded by secular displays (reindeer, Santa, etc), it’s usually permissible.
The problem with the ruling in American Atheists’ view was that it still gave preference to a symbol some Christians found meaning in after 9/11. Yes, it’s part of history, but other, non-Christian groups found meaning and symbolism in other places and relics of their memories were not being displayed in the museum.
So American Atheists appealed the ruling in August, saying that…
The essential problem with the Cross is that it alienates non Christians seeking to commemorate the dead, wounded and other affected persons. The Cross also alienates those who wish to learn about events at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. The 17-foot tall Christian Cross is one of the largest objects in the Memorial. It dominates all other religious objects. The inclusion of information to accompany the Cross does not change the essential facts that in the present case the government is sponsoring and erecting an indisputably religious symbol which advances one religion above all other religions, and non-religion as well.
Today, that appeal was rejected by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which says there’s no Establishment Clause violation taking place here and can American Atheists please just go away.
Judge Reena Raggi, writing for the majority, explains that the lower courts had it right all along. This isn’t about religion; it’s about accurately depicting history. Even if the Cross is a Christian symbol, it’s not meant to proselytize or demean non-Christians.
… American Atheists do not dispute that The Cross at Ground Zero is a genuine historical artifact of recovery and healing efforts after the September 11 attacks. Rather, they contend that appellees’ actual purpose must be religious because the cross’s particular historical significance derives from its religious symbolism and devotional use. In short, because the historical significance of this particular column and cross‐beam is as a tangible illustration of the role faith played for many persons in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, appellees’ actual purpose in displaying the artifact must be religious rather than secular. We reject this reasoning.
Raggi added that the Supreme Court has long held that an “accurate account of human history frequently requires reference to religion” and that any reasonable observer seeing the Cross in the museum would know it was a symbol, albeit a religious one, “for any persons seeking hope and comfort” after 9/11, not Museum officials giving a middle finger to atheists.
While American Atheists still has options left (like asking the full Appeals Court to reconsider the decision or taking their chances with the Supreme Court), none of them have any reasonable chance of succeeding.
Maybe that’s for the best. This was an unpopular lawsuit, even for many atheists, and getting this story out of the headlines is probably best for everyone involved. AA can go back to focusing on its new TV channel instead of fighting a battle that very few people wanted them to tackle.
(via Daily Caller. Large portions of this article were posted earlier.)