NY Daily News – July 29, 2014
by Bill Hutchinson
They didn’t stand a prayer! A federal appeals court has tossed a lawsuit by a group of atheists who challenged the display of the “Cross at Ground Zero” at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.
The three-judge panel of the Second Circuit Court ruled Monday that the cross recovered from the rubble of the World Trade Center was more of a “genuine historical artifact” than a symbol of Christianity.
The judges noted that the cross — comprised of a 17-foot steel column and a crossbeam — became a “symbol of hope and healing for all persons” in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy.
No one was more pleased with the ruling than Frank Silecchia, 60, the ironworker who discovered the cross in the wreckage of the twin towers two days after the 2001 attacks.
“Faith won over atheism,” the retired Silecchia, who now lives in South Carolina, told the Daily News Monday. “I’m kind of proud because that was my initial goal: to help ease the burden of humanity.
“All I can do is thank God for answering my prayer,” Silecchia added.
The American Atheists initially sued the Port Authority in Manhattan Supreme Court in July 2011. The case was transferred to Manhattan Federal Court, where Judge Deborah Batts dismissed it on summary judgment.
The group appealed, arguing that displaying the cross at the museum violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and state constitutions of New York and New Jersey.
The atheists contended the display of the cross at the museum “gave the impression of a Latin cross, a symbol associated with Christianity.”
They asserted that displaying the cross was unconstitutional, “particularly without any accompanying plaque or similar item acknowledging that atheists were among those” who died on 9/11 or participated in the rescue efforts.
The appellate judges ruled the atheists’ “challenge fails on the merits.”
The judges concluded that the “stated purpose of displaying The Cross at Ground Zero to tell the story of how some people used faith to cope with the tragedy is genuine, and an objective observer would understand the purpose of the display to be secular.”
The panel also noted that the Rev. Brian Jordan, a Franciscan priest, welcomed all faiths to a Mass he held regularly at the cross during the rescue effort. Jordan was one of the defendants named in the suit.
“The Cross at Ground Zero thus came to be viewed not simply as a Christian symbol, but also as a symbol of hope and healing for all persons,” the judges wrote.
Attorney Matthew Dowd, of the Wiley Rein lawfirm in Washington, filed a letter to the appeals court on Jordan’s behalf, slamming the suit as “a frivolous attempt to chill (Jordan’s) freedom to excercise his religion.”
“The outcome is also a victory for Father Jordan,” Dowd said in a statement.
David Silverman, president of the American Atheists, said his group was “disappointed” and is deciding whether to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“The (appellate) court relied on the words of religious persons, ignoring statements to the contrary from atheists, that a Christian cross is comforting to the non-religious population. The opposite is true,” Silverman said in a statement Monday.
“There are no better examples of Christian privilege and prejudice in this country than this decision and the refusal of the museum commission to work with us to honor atheists who died and suffered on 9/11.”