As American Atheists Convention Goes On, Judge Tosses Out Their 9/11 Memorial Cross Lawsuit

***Update***: American Atheists says they will appeal this ruling:

“We will appeal. We’re fighting it. This is not dead,” American Atheists’ President Dave Silverman said of the ruling. “This is a place where religion destroyed American lives. This is something all Americans must fight. This is injustice. What could possibly be more religious than a cross? The only thing would be a cross with the name ‘Jesus’ carved in it.

How’s that for timing? On Good Friday and in the middle of American Atheists’ 50th anniversary convention, 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 on that day.

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, they had every right to do so, but for a historical museum to have a display with the cross suggested to AA that Christian victims were being treated as difference 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.

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.

It sounds like Batts is 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 is that it still gives 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 are not being displayed in the museum.

My guess is that AA will not appeal the ruling. They’ll accept it and move on.

But we’ll be left with a ruling that could be used in future cases: Go ahead and give special treatment to Christian symbols. Put a few random secular artifacts around it and you’ll be able to get away with it.

That’s a bad precedent to set.

Meanwhile, that sound you just heard is celebratory applause at FOX News Channel.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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