Friday, July 29, 2011

LEGAL COMMENTARY: Stop it, Atheists!

In the days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, some workers and mourners at the World Trade Center site seized upon a cross-shaped steel beam found amid the rubble as a symbol of faith and hope.
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For the past five years, the 17-foot-tall cross was displayed outside a nearby Catholic church. On Saturday it was moved again, to the site of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, where it is to be in the permanent collection.

But the move quickly provoked a lawsuit from American Atheists, a nonprofit group based in New Jersey. It argued that because the cross is a religious symbol of Christianity and the museum is partly government financed and is on government property, the cross’s inclusion in the museum violates the United States Constitution and state civil rights law.
No. Shush. As an atheist, this sort of thing really, really pisses me off. The beam-cross happened (past-tense) and, as such, became a part of our history. And although it may not be how I would have chosen to my body commemorated if I had died that day, it was an honest expression of sorrow and loss, not an attempt to evangelize or promote.

This kind of logic takes the sentiment that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" to absurd proportions. The government can and should be able to make preservation of our historical record, even if that historical record may have religious connection. I searched "historical cathedral" and the first hit was the Cathedral of St. Augustine on the National Park Service website. The fact that it's a cathedral doesn't mean that it's not a historical site "worthy of preservation" (as the NPS' website has it. Nor does the cross.

Of course, we wouldn't want this:
[Opposing lawyer Jay Sekulow] pointed to parts of the lawsuit naming four individual atheists, who are described as having suffered “dyspepsia, symptoms of depression, headaches, anxiety, and mental pain and anguish from the knowledge that they are made to feel officially excluded from the ranks of citizens who were directly injured by the 9/11 attack.”

All of that being said, I hope the 9/11 memorial takes opportunities to gather other historic tokens of grief from other traditions. But it shouldn't be required to discard a historic object because that object is religious. Why not throw away the Jefferson Bible while we're at it?

After all, there are plenty of things to get upset about that are 9/11 related. Here's a good one:
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isaac butler said...

I feel torn about this. Or should I say, I am against the lawsuit, but primarily because it feels totally preemptive. They should be lobbying the museum to make sure that the cross is framed properly. The academic who speaks at the beginning of the article has it right: if it's not framed as a religious object, but rather as something that has historical importance, i have no objection to it.

I DO have a problem with christians christianizing everything. And atheists-- including the folks in this lawsuit-- likely remember that George W Bush explicitly left people who don't believe in God out of his post 9/11 rhetoric and treated us like we aren't Americans.

This isn't The Cross at Auschwitz, I recognize that, but thanks to things like the cross at Auschwitz, it's easier to really assume the worst about stuff like this.

That said, again, this lawsuit? Bad idea. But I do think it's going to take some activism on people's part to get the cross image properly contextualized within the museum. And that context is important.

CultureFuture said...

I definitely agree that the context has to be preserved, but the use of lawsuits as a method makes it an antagonistic, us vs. them approach. It basically gives Fox News something to rage about and make Christians feel like victims, whereas from a legal perspective they don't really have that much standing.