Why Is There a Christian Cross at the 9/11 Memorial (But No Representation of Other Faiths or Atheism)?
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On Wednesday 27 July, we at American Atheists filed a difficult case. We began a suit against the inclusion of the Christian cross at the World Trade Centre memorial. We knew this would potentially paint us as "unpatriotic"; we filed it anyway, because we are patriotic.
Our main concern here is equality: 9/11 was a faith-based American tragedy that affected everyone. However, the Christian community rallied around a T-joint they found in the rubble and secured what is, in effect, a sole representation in the memorial, for itself, to the exclusion of all other religions and philosophies. This is unfair to the hundreds of secular people who died on 9/11, as well as the hundreds more non-Christian theistic victims. We all deserve equal representation.
US and New York laws mandate that all people should be treated equally when public land or public money is used. Specifically, the New York Civil Rights Act states:
All persons within the jurisdiction of this state shall be entitled to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities and privileges of any places of public accommodations, resort or amusement.
What we seek is any remedy that honours everyone equally, be they Christian, Muslim, Jew or atheist. This can either be done with a totally neutral memorial that concentrates on the tragedy and not religion, or one that allows everyone to put up a display of equal size and prominence. In the latter case, we have offered to pay for a display ourselves. If everyone is provided equal treatment, we will drop our lawsuit, because fair is fair.
The one thing we won't tolerate is Christianity getting a special treatment not afforded to us or anyone else. Christians can love and rally around whatever they wish, and if they wish to deify a piece of rubble, that's up to them, but that doesn't mean they get sole representation in the WTC memorial.
On Thursday, it was disclosed that a Star of David made (by humans, after the event) of rubble from the wreckage would also be included in the memorial. We see this as progress, because it acknowledges that these symbols are religious in nature (they had originally claimed the cross was "secular" – an argument that now seems to have been dropped). More inclusion is better than less, but this certainly underscores the need for a display representing the atheists, who far outnumber the Jews who died in the attack.
According to the law, all citizens would have the right to an equally sized memorial for their specific faith. This includes Muslims, who would undoubtedly want a representation, since their religion was involved, as well as Buddhists, Mormons, Wiccans and so on.
Of course, the easiest way to do this is simply to remove the religious artifacts and stick with the memorial that respects everyone equally by not singling any religion out for special treatment at all. The cross should be given to a church (via sale or lottery) and the memorial should be completely non-discriminatory.
We at American Atheists fight the unpopular fights because they are necessary. We seek equality and demand it when refused. Religious discrimination from the government is not allowed and must be contested, even when the majority is favoured. Indeed, especially so.
Dave Silverman is president of American Atheists. He has been with the organization since 1996, holding positions of NJ state director, communications director, national spokesperson, board member, and vice president; he was elected president in 2010. Dave hosts the Atheist Viewpoint TV show, blogs on the NoGodBlog, has appeared on numerous public affairs and news programmes, and has debated with religious apologists across the country