I am a card carrying, dues paying, additional contribution giving, regular convention attending member of the American Atheists. As you may know, that organization filed a lawsuit concerning the inclusion of the fabled "ground zero cross" as a display in the 9-11 memorial museum. The judge issued a ruling dismissing the lawsuit on (appropriately) "Good Friday."
I am also a lawyer and have read the decision. Having done so, I have to say that I agree with the judge, despite my membership in American Atheists and my general sympathy for its position.
As usual, the media did not get and report the key legal issues or the legally important facts. So I thought I would comment on the decision here from a legal perspective. First, the first footnote in the opinion reveals that the attorneys for AA did not contest the factual statements of the other side. That is the same as admitting them to be true. Among those facts were:
The cross had been erected during the rescue efforts and was a place that rescuers congregated during the stressful days of the rescue efforts for solace (the judge wrote “solstice”) and religious services were held there during those dark days.
The display also includes other items made out of pieces of the towers showing the
skyline of New York, the towers, a star of David, other things, and the “last beam” removed from the area, which stands far taller than the subject cross.
The First Amendment prohibits the government from establishing a religion. But one of the specific factors that has been decided over the years of sorting out what does or does not “establish” religion pertains to museums. If the government wants to erect a replica of a particular town as it stood in 1830, the inclusion of church is not an “establishment” of religion because it is accurately telling the story of the town at that time. Churches were often located in, and even the cultural center of, small towns on the “frontier.” Recognizing that historical fact and displaying artifacts that were important to the people of that time and place is not “establishing” religion. Nor is the building of a replica of an ancient Greek temple including the statue of the god or goddess an establishment of religion.
Whether we agree or like the fact, it is simply a fact that, during the dark days following the attacks, some of our friends and neighbors and fellow countrymen, did gather in the shadow of that crossbeam turned cross for solace. Its inclusion in a museum telling the story of those days is not a violation of the prohibition on “establishing” religion.
Our libertarian friends will point out that this whole discussion could be avoided if the government stayed out of the business of building museums and allowed private entities to build them. And they are right. But if the government is going to spend taxpayer dollars on such projects, it is not a violation of anyone’s constitutional rights to tell the story as it happened, even if some of us wish certain parts of it had not happened.
And, of course, you can point to the people who do want the cross display included as a testament to their religion. They will likely gather (if they haven’t already) to have prayer or religious services at that display. But humanists can also gather there to publicly remember and remind others that religion is what gave us this tragedy and that, rather than turn to another religion; we should seek to free ourselves of religion and learn to look to each other for solace and support in times of crises or to prevent the crises in the first place. That cross is an important part of the story of those days. Not only because it was of religious and emotional importance to people engaged in those efforts, but it also shows the horrible hold that religion has on the human species by showing how humans react to a horror brought about by religion, by turning to religion. It gives us the opportunity to point this out.