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The Ground Zero cross will remain at the 9/11 museum. Photo by: Wikimedia Commons

Court rejects atheists’ appeal to remove 17ft steel cross found in 9/11 wreckage

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The Ground Zero cross will remain at the 9/11 museum. Photo by: Wikimedia Commons

The Ground Zero cross will remain at the 9/11 museum.

Last week, a federal appeals court rejected the challenge by American Atheists to remove the cross of steel beams found in the Ground Zero rubble two days after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

The cross is currently on display at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, which opened in May.

Irish American Franciscan priest Reverend Brian Jordan, who regularly held Mass by the steel cross during the rescue efforts in 2001 (and welcomed all faiths to gather), was named in the suit, and Irish American attorney Matthew Dowd filed a letter to the appeals court on his behalf, slamming the suit as a frivolous attack.

“The First Amendment protects the ‘free exercise’ of religion. The atheists’ lawsuit in this case was an insidious attack on Reverend Jordan’s right to minister in public. For them to sue him personally was egregious and beyond the pale, as he did little more than say prayers in public,” Dowd told IrishCentral in an interview.

“I am probably the only priest in the country who is proud to be sued for something he believes in,” Reverend Jordan told IrishCentral.

“This was a victory for all those who found comfort and consolation in the Ground Zero cross, and a blessing for believers, especially this Irish Catholic from Brooklyn.”

American Atheists, an organization that fights for total separation of church and government and the civil liberties of atheists, held that the cross’ display in the 9/11 memorial museum denies atheists of equal representation, and also violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by breaching the separation of church and government.

“Atheists died on 9/11, members of our organization suffered in lower Manhattan on that day, and our members helped with the rescue and recovery efforts,” American Atheists president David Silverman said in a statement. They also contended that the steel cross gave the impression of the Latin cross, clearly associated with Christianity.

The three-judge panel rejected the atheists’ claims on the basis that the cross is a “genuine historical artifact” rather than a religious symbol.The 17-foot steel beam and column, found in the wreckage of the Twin Towers by ironworker Frank Silecchia, became “a symbol of hope and healing for all persons” in the aftermath of 9/11.

They also rejected the demand that the museum include an ‘atheist recognition plaque,’ as the First Amendment doesn’t require exhibitions to recognize all groups upon displaying a religious object, though “the actual purpose in displaying The Cross at Ground Zero has always been secular: to recount the history of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and their aftermath.”

They concluded that the cross tells the story of how some people used faith to cope with the tragedy, “and an objective observer would understand the purpose of the display to be secular.”

“It’s important to remember the First Amendment is not about eradicating, from public life, anything that is in any sense connected to religion. The First Amendment prevents the government from ‘establishing’ a religion,” attorney Matthew Dowd said.

“Imagine what the Atheists demands would do to many of Ireland’s historic sites and locations,” he said.

“If there were a cross or anything religious, it couldn’t in a museum or supported by the government in any way. That would not be right, and it’s certainly not what the First Amendment requires. The role of religion in society – both in the U.S. and in Ireland – is changing. But that shouldn’t mean we have to rewrite history under the guise of the First Amendment.” Dowd said he came to this realization when he was traveling in Ireland last summer, visiting relatives in Dublin, Roscommon, and his father’s hometown in Longford.

American Atheists has not yet decided whether it will appeal the decision to the full appellate court or the Supreme Court.

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