SEARCHING FOR survivors amid the rubble that was the World Trade Center, workers 10 years ago unearthed two steel beams joined together at right angles. The 17-foot cross — to some, a sign of comfort and faith in the most nightmarish of times — became part of the story of New York City’s recovery from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. To omit it from the National September 11 Memorial and Museum — as a misguided lawsuit seeks to do — is tantamount to ripping out a page of history.
The American Atheists, a New Jersey-based nonprofit, filed suit last month in New York’s Supreme Court in Manhattan seeking to bar the “World Trade Center cross” from going on display when the Ground Zero museum opens in September. The lawsuit, which names multiple defendants, including Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and the World Trade Center Foundation, contends that inclusion of the cross violates the U.S. Constitution and New York civil rights law. It argues that the cross, a symbol of Christianity, has no place in a museum that is on government property and receives some government support, though it is run by a private foundation.
Under that logic, it would seem the National Gallery of Art would have to banish its religious art — or that any group that receives government help must forfeit First Amendment rights of expression in choosing what to exhibit. In other controversies involving the display of crosses — outside San Diego and in the Mojave Desert — government, to our mind, twisted its rules for the express purpose of maintaining a religious display. Does anyone really think that this museum was built for the express purpose of displaying the cross? Or that there is no secular significance to the steel beams that became part of the landscape of Ground Zero?
“We have a responsibility at the museum to use the authentic artifacts that really came from the site itself to tell the story of not only what happened on 9/11, but the nine-month recovery period,” Joseph C. Daniels, museum president and chief executive, told the New York Times. The cross is as historically important as the smashed New York City fire truck that will go on display or the flagpole from the World Trade Center. Yes, it is a powerful symbol of faith to some, but that should not banish it from a museum that will give tribute to the very American attributes of freedom and tolerance that the Sept. 11 attackers sought to destroy.